- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2004

NORFOLK — Teressa Rerras didn’t really start taking photographs until age 40, and then it was only as a way to remember her trips to exotic places around the world.

Nearly a decade later, she is doing a lot more than just taking pretty pictures. She is returning to Afghanistan this month for the ninth time since the war there in 2001 to teach girls new ways of seeing their world — and themselves — through photography.

Girls who had never been allowed to hold a camera under the strict rule of the Taliban now are learning about math, science and communication as they snap shots of themselves and their surroundings, develop the film and write about their visions of the future.

“It’s kind of like art therapy. I want them to focus on telling me their stories and their dreams,” said Mrs. Rerras, 49, who teaches workshops in Afghanistan through her Norfolk-based nonprofit, the Learning Through Photography Foundation.

“I want to encourage them. I want to give them hope.”

Mrs. Rerras is a customer service supervisor for an airline. She also is studying photojournalism and working on a teaching degree.

At 40, she had an opportunity to drive around South Africa by herself, which fed her sense of adventure. She also took an interest in photographing cultures on the verge of becoming extinct, traveling to remote places in China.

She found herself gravitating toward women as subjects. The more she learned about the suffering of women in Afghanistan, the more her heart went out to them.

She volunteered to go to Afghanistan to use her photography skills for a nonprofit organization, and she also helped distribute food.

When she read about a program created by Wendy Ewald, an educator who has taught photography and writing to children around the world, she knew she had to learn more.

She studied under Mrs. Ewald at a workshop and was inspired to create her own photography program, specifically tailored to girls in Afghanistan and honoring their Muslim culture.

She knew it wouldn’t be hard to find girls intrigued enough to participate.

“When I would talk to girls [in Afghanistan], they would want to touch and hold my camera,” Mrs. Rerras said.

In the spring, Mrs. Rerras took vacation and unpaid leave to teach photography in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and in the western city of Herat, which was led by a warlord until he was ousted by the government in September.

In Herat, Mrs. Rerras was shocked to realize, women still were wearing body-shrouding burkas.

“I was naive,” she said. “I didn’t know how oppressive it was there, thinking that the women had the same freedoms they had in Kabul.”

In Herat, Mrs. Rerras’ students — mostly ages 14 to 18 — were restricted to taking pictures at the girls’ school they attended, or at home, although some ventured out with their cameras while wearing burkas. In Kabul, the girls could wander a bit farther, searching for subjects for their photos.

“They really got quite good with the cameras,” Mrs. Rerras said as she digitally flipped through some of the girls’ work, stored on her laptop.

In one self-portrait, a serious Soria F. Ahmad gazes into her reflection in a mirror.

“Life is a notebook of memories. Sweet memories and bad memories,” Mrs. Ahmad, a student in Herat, wrote in an assignment. “These are the unforgettable days of my life.”

Frohar Mateen, a student in Kabul who aspires to be a judge, wrote in a letter that “the darkness has gone away and now I can see … the horizons of hopes, dreams and ambitions!”

Mrs. Rerras lectured with the help of an interpreter, trying to teach the girls to be creative and observe things from various perspectives, as well as build their confidence.

At times, the working conditions were difficult. The Herat school, for example, often had no electricity.

Mrs. Rerras’ foundation raised money to buy point-and-shoot cameras for the girls to use. At the end of the program, Mrs. Rerras surprised the girls by giving them the cameras to keep.

“They would dance with the cameras in the courtyard,” Mrs. Rerras recalled. “It made me want to cry. They’re just having the time of their lives.”

While in Afghanistan, Mrs. Rerras also went to a women’s prison where many inmates had committed the “crime” of leaving their husbands.

She also heard that women, trying to escape abuse at home, were committing suicide by setting themselves on fire. She went to a hospital to investigate and saw women with burns over most of their bodies, lingering in pain for several days until they died.

Their “mothers would hold on to me and ask me to take photographs,” she said. “They wanted the rest of the world to know what was going on.”

Mrs. Rerras ended up in the hospital herself after contracting a bacterial infection.

She acknowledged that her trips to what can be a dangerous part of the world are not easy on her husband and two grown sons. “They worry about me being kidnapped,” she said.

But Mrs. Rerras has a driver she trusts deeply, and she keeps a low profile, even donning a burka. Once, she carried a baby when she was riding with a male guide so people would think they were married. It is unseemly for a man and woman who are not married to be together in public, unescorted.

Mrs. Rerras plans to teach in Afghanistan again next year and hopes to eventually expand to other countries.

In the meantime, she intends to head back to Afghanistan at the end of December to gather more material to finish a project she started in the spring: The girls are writing letters about their lives to first lady Laura Bush.

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