Womanwise 18

Debbie Ali lived through one of the worst experiences that a woman can have in Trinidad and Tobago. On her 30th birthday three years ago she was abducted from her home in broad daylight in Roystonia, Couva, then tortured and abused.
Three years later, I’m driving around her neighbourhood on New Year’s day looking for her house and calling her phone with no luck.

I find the cross roads in the housing development where Debbie still lives with her family, but I can’t figure out which house it is (I’m not a big fan of shouting or blowing horns in the road).
“Tell her I’ll be in the road and to look out for me,” my wife suggested.
I’d asked Donna along partly because of the long drive to Couva but also because of a buzzing intuition that it might be a good idea to have a woman along, given that I’m a six and a half foot red Afro-Trini walking around a largely Indo-Trini neighbourhood with big dark bags.

“Oh, your wife?” Debbie said. “I see her.” And there she was in the heavily barred window, waving at us.
A petite, stocky and very attractive young woman, Debbie Ali was all flowing hair and quick moves, briskly ushering her into the house. Every door, it seemed, was protected by heavy burglar proofing and she was home alone, the only sign of her family the toys strewn around the television room and a bedroom door ajar at the end of a hallway.

On first seeing the house, I’d eyed a small balcony that overlooked the setting sun. My original plan for the shoot and the reason I scheduled for dusk was to light her nicely against the colours of sunset, and the sky was an interesting mix of brooding blues and moody magentas.
Donna, who has a gift for making small talk in the most challenging of circumstances, was chatting with Debbie about her experience, and her brows were knitted with unusual concern.

I set to work setting for the balcony shoot, hoping that the original plan would play out. Debbie was accommodating, but not really into the shoot, her mood seemed mercurial. The usual banter about not looking good in photographs was traded back and forth as I tried to find some purchase in this exchange between photographer and subject.
I asked after the garage, where the abduction took place, and Debbie graciously showed me the space but declined to be photographed there. By now I was pretty much casting about in desperation. The balcony photo was nice, but not decisive and I felt the threads of opportunity unravelling in a situation that must have been even more complicated for my subject in ways I can’t imagine.

Then I took a second look at the front door burglar proofing, thick bars of steel with ornate patterns that kind of summed up the middle class prison that most of Trinidad and Tobago lives in.
Aware that I was slip-sliding toward the end of this shoot with nothing to brag about on my memory card, I asked, “Can we do something with you opening the door?”
Of course, what I was really asking is “can we build a visual metaphor for the way you’ve had to protect yourself from the world?” Phrasing is everything in delicate situations.

Rushing now, I reached for an umbrella to reset the lights and promptly jabbed the quick of my thumbnail so deeply I let out an involuntary gasp.
“Heh,” I said, grinning as I squeezed blood out of my thumb and smeared it inside my hand as unobtrusively as I could manage. “It isn’t a real photoshoot until I draw blood.”
Quickly now, I set one bare strobe directly behind Debbie to light the room behind her and put some snap into her dark hair and the shoulders of her sweatsuit top.

The other light and a white umbrella goes without me outside the door. In just a few minutes, the shoot resumes, first with the door shut, then ajar, then fully open. As we shoot, the sounds of raucous male laughter, probably a neighbour’s lime, rise and fall. Debbie’s eyes flit toward the sound and back at me as the strobes fire.
It isn’t until I do the final edit that the pictures really begin to emerge. In Couva, it was a delicate glide around the elephant in the room, the terrible story that I’m trying to find a way to portray in pictures. Who is this woman three years later? Where does she find the courage to tell this story?

Pictures, are after all, just slices of time and the expressions and depth we read into them are really an illusion we impose on expressions that may have come from somewhere else entirely.
The remarkable photo of Winston Churchill glaring at the camera shot by Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh was such an inspiring image during World War II that it’s believed to have played a key role in stiffening English resolve. Karsh got the expression by snatching away Churchill’s beloved cigar.

In the edit, I find pictures of Debbie Ali that seem to serve as an interpretation of a story I won’t see until the next day. I’m trying as I make my selects, to reach into my subject’s cool reserve and a few dozen photos to find expressions that add their own nuances to the still very turbulent story that I visited on the very first day of the new decade.
Feel free to comment on the results.
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