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Portraits of Albinism: Letting An Inner Light Shine

Zawia Kassim, 12, of Kigoma Region, would like to be a teacher someday. (Courtesy of Jacquelyn Martin)

Photographers look for beauty in unexpected places. And in parts of Tanzania — a society that gravely mistreats albinos — photojournalist Jacquelyn Martin set out to show how beautiful she thinks they are.

Tanzanians with albinism endure a particularly cruel fate. Not only do they suffer from sun sensitivity and vision problems, but they are also hunted by witch doctors who believe their body parts can be used for magic.

Since 2006, more than 71 albinos have been killed in Tanzania so their bodies could be made into potions.

"They go through daily prejudice and hardship," Martin says on the phone. "People around them don't think of them as humans."

Tanzania — which is thought to be the birthplace of the genetic mutation — has one of the highest rates of albinism in the world. Albinos account for nearly 1 in every 1,400 people, compared to about 1 in 20,000 worldwide. And because of social discrimination, albinos tend to marry each other, thereby passing their genes to their children.

Martin is a photojournalist for The Associated Press who normally covers politics, but she has a personal interest in issues of race and identity. Every year she takes personal time to tell long-form stories, and this year she traveled to Tanzania for three-and-a-half weeks. She visited the Kabanga Protectorate Center — a sort of boarding school for people with albinism — for her project Tribe of Ghosts.

Martin worked with a translator to interview her subjects and take their portraits. In some cases, it was the first time they had ever had their photo taken.

"In society, they are reviled, so they really responded to being treated with dignity and being photographed in a respectful, humanitarian manner," she says.

"I really think there is something special in this collection of portraits where their inner beauty shines through," she adds. "We would talk about their experiences ... and they would laugh and love that they were in the pictures."

The Kabanga center and others like it protect people with albinism but also isolate them. Martin told me there is not much of a plan for the albinos beyond primary education. Because they can't live safely in Tanzanian society, she says, their prospects for marriage, a career and a normal life are unclear.

Martin plans to give prints to every person she photographed.

"Because they are not treated like humans, because they are not treated with respect, I hope they have a little something that helps them reflect on the beauty in themselves — to help them going forward."

Martin collaborated with the Asante Mariamu organization, a northern Virginia group dedicated to raising awareness of people with albinism in Tanzania.

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