The first thing senior international relations major Alice Lee found herself doing when she arrived in Uganda for her summer photojournalism project was outrun a bus. After flying to Uganda, Lee went to a bus park, paid for her bus and left to use the bathroom — something she soon regretted.
When she emerged, the bus had left without her. So, she began to run. For two blocks she chased down the bus until it stopped.
“Half the people that saw me just stood there and laughed,” Lee said. “But some people were banging and trying to help me stop the bus.”
Lee caught her bus but in her rush she’d left her bags with all her belongings in the car that took her from the airport to the bus park. She started her trip with just one thing. Luckily, it happened to be the only thing that really mattered — her camera.
“Of course this would happen to me,” Lee said. “There’s no way I could start my time in Uganda any other way because this stuff just happens all the time.”
Lee’s foray into the world of photojournalism started because of the band Switchfoot and a photographer named Jeremy Cowart. When Lee was in middle school, Cowart shot promotional photos for Switchfoot, photos that inspired Lee to further investigate the photographer. She later discovered that Cowart had traveled to Africa and done a series of photo essays focusing particularly on East Africa.
“I was really drawn to those images and I think that’s what sparked my initial interest in photography — the combination of that and [Cowart’s] music photography,” Lee said.
Lee hopes to use her international relations major to do development work, possibly enabling her to have a more direct impact on improving the lives of people like those she profiled.
Though photography is not in her long-term career goals, Lee said it will always have a special place in her heart.
“I always tell people I think I have the best job because I get to just hang out with people and be their friends,” Lee said. “You can’t take honest, good pictures without establishing these relationships.”
Lee first traveled to Uganda last summer and worked as a photographer for 31 Bits — a social entrepreneurship organization that employs large numbers of women making paper bead jewelry in northern Uganda. This spring Lee studied abroad in Botswana, and rather than return home for the summer, she chose to continue her travels in Africa.
Lee wanted to document what she called “stories of change” about people she’d met during her travels. Initially she planned to travel to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania and profile one person from each country but she quickly realized that was overly ambitious.
“Within the first week I realized that I had these relationships with these people that I could communicate with — I knew a little bit of their local language, and I was familiar with the town,” Lee said. “The women that I worked with last year were all begging me to take their picture. I would have to overcome this barrier of being a stranger anywhere else.”
For her project Lee chose to profile four individuals who had been part of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerilla group that formed in violent opposition to the Ugandan government and operated in Uganda from 1986 to 2006. In 2006, a UNICEF-funded study estimated that at least 66,000 children and youth had been abducted by the LRA between 1986 and 2005. While some were able to escape, others were forced to be child soldiers or sex slaves. The group’s former leader, Joseph Kony, achieved notoriety in March 2012 when a documentary titled Kony 2012 detailing the group’s use of child soldiers was released.
When Lee first began the project, she was adamant that she didn’t want to discuss the topic of the LRA.
“I thought that [the LRA] was over-covered and especially people our age have heard about it a lot,” Lee said. “But through a couple connections to some local Ugandans who were trying to help me find people to interview [I found] really fascinating stories.”
Lee wanted the stories she told to be different. Instead of focusing on the LRA and the atrocities committed by its members, she decided to spotlight life after the LRA.
One man was abducted at age 10 and served as a child soldier for three years. He has been struggling for the past 10 years to get to university. Now at age 22 he is completing high school and hopes to earn a scholarship.
Lee’s second profile subject, Achama Jackson, served as a major and political official in the LRA. He joined in 1987. He was injured and in 1994 had his leg amputated. He later went on to serve 10 more years with the LRA. Though most former LRA officials are ostracized by their communities, Jackson built his own plantation of matoke, a staple plantain, and is now the community authority on matoke. He leads a village savings and loans association, through which he is able to support his two wives and 14 children. He now lives and farms on the same piece of land where his brother was murdered.
“Seeing his investment in his children was really cool for me,” Lee said. “Also seeing how open he was to sharing his experience because he was a major and he did do bad things but, because of how open he is and honest, he’s been accepted back into his community and people respect him — he’s a community leader.”
Another of Lee’s subjects, Abio Vicky, was abducted by the LRA at age nine. At age 14, she gave birth shortly before the fighters she was with launched a major offensive. Because she was not able to assist the men, Vicky and her baby were left behind and able to escape the LRA.
Today, Vicky is working at 31 Bits and is able to send both her daughters — one of whom was born after she returned from the LRA — to school.
“The reality is that there are really cool people doing really cool things, and I really believe that these are the people who can change this continent,” Lee said.
Lee said the project has given her unique insight into how northern Uganda, particularly the town of Gulu, has developed in the nearly nine years since the LRA has left the region.
“Everyone knows that the LRA was there but you could easily live there and not realize the impact or the effects of it,” she said.
Lee plans to create a book with photo essays about each of her subjects but remains unsure if she actually wants to publish the book. She does know, however, that she will not publish her photos on the internet.
“I’m still trying to figure out if a book would even be the best way or if I should just write these stories and send them back to the people they’re about,” Lee said.