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Meet the Girls Fighting Discrimination through Photography in Sierra Leone

“We want to give other females the power and opportunity to be the captains of their lives”

Woman with face mask looks into her camera
Grace Kamanda, one of the founders of Girls Behind the Lens.

Grace Kamanda was always inspired by photography. But growing up, she didn’t foresee many outlets for her passion. That all changed when she attended a wedding where a woman was the photographer.

It opened her eyes to the idea that photography could be more than a hobby. She joined an apprenticeship program called Envizage Concept where she met Joy Gborie, Hawa Turay, and Fatmata Jalloh—three young women who shared her interest. Between the four of them, they only knew of one woman, Mimi Bangali, successfully working as a photographer in Sierra Leone. So, together, the four women formed Girls Behind the Lens—a women-led photo agency that also trains other young women and girls in visual arts and photojournalism.

5 women stand behind a camera and tripod
Students with Girls Behind the Lens prepare to capture a local community.

When the Fund launched its pilot participatory grant-making initiative in Sierra Leone with feminist movement-building hub Purposeful, Girls Behind the Lens responded to an open call for applications from youth-led groups. A panel of their peers—other teenagers from Sierra Leone—selected their proposal to receive funding.

With this start-up support, Girls Behind the Lens was able to purchase photography equipment and set up a training program for an initial group of five girls.

2 woman with professional cameras cross a road in Sierra Leone
Fatmata Jalloh (right), one of the founders of Girls Behind the Lens, with one of the young women learning photography.

Their aim is twofold: to introduce more girls and young women to photography and to move toward equal and more realistic representation of girls and women in media in Sierra Leone. By helping more girls tell their own and their communities’ stories, Girls Behind the Lens is shining a light on issues young women face and building the confidence they need to stand up for their rights.

“We wanted to give other females that power and opportunity to be the captains of their lives,” says Grace.

Woman wearing a 'Girls behind the lens' t-shirt speaks into a megaphone
Diana Williams, left, speaks at a school about photography and Girls Behind the Lens’s work.

Like most organizations, however, the arrival of COVID-19 forced them to adapt quickly. They scaled back plans to engage with school-age girls, offering a series of talks instead of full programs. But they also stepped in to address people’s needs during the pandemic, distributing accurate information about staying safe and bringing clean water and soap to local communities. They also encouraged the girls they were training to document how COVID-19 was affecting their lives and their communities.

2 women wearing colorful skirts pound rice with long wooden sticks
In a photo taken by Grace Kamanda, women in Bamatiwa, a village in Kenema District in eastern Sierra Leone, are shown pounding rice. In most communities around Sierra Leone, women and girls do the bulk of domestic work. COVID-19 has increased this workload, often making it difficult for girls to participate in remote lessons on the radio.

In March 2021, Girls Behind the Lens held an exhibition in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, they had a waitlist of nearly 1,000 people who wanted to see their work. They also have begun to book jobs as an agency, as more people are drawn to their documentary-like style that places their subjects, especially women, at the forefront. “The unique part of our approach is that we focus on the art of photography, telling stories,” says Joy.

Download our paper to learn more about how the Fund is supporting youth-led groups through its participatory grant-making initiative with Purposeful.