Jenny Matthews is a woman on the move. Just back from Baghdad, the freshness of her latest experience is palpable. Her sense of justice has not been anaesthetised by 20 years as a photojournalist.
“You know, there’s no telephone system working, no Internet and no authority out there,” she begins, getting straight to the heart of what matters in people’s lives. “Gas costs ten times more than it used to, and there’s a 12-hour wait for it. The Americans are rounding people up and putting them in camps near the airport. Goodwill is disappearing fast. People are hoping they don’t have to say that things were better under Saddam, but it’s starting to look that way.”

The following day she is due to leave for Mozambique. Somehow, she has made time for a talk on her new book, Women and War, published by Pluto Press in association with Action Aid, at the Guardian Newsroom in London. This semi-nomadic lifestyle has been hers by choice, and, as she emphatically states, privilege, since the early 1980s. She headed out to South America after university, where she found the pull of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua an irresistible subject matter. A commission for Christian Aid to document the lives of women there provided a focus, and set a precedent for her career.

Women and War contains not only a powerful selection of images from the major conflicts of the last two decades, but a running commentary by Matthews alongside each frame, lending the collection the beat of a road diary following the freeway to war.
“I always keep a diary,” she says. “I get overwhelmed by what I see in front of me and it can be so easy to forget. I’m in such a privileged position, and I’m very aware that each image is the result of a decision I’ve made. And that decision has influenced the outcome of the picture. Everything is mediated. I think you get so much more out of a picture when there’s some writing to explain.”

And, certainly, it’s an effective tool here to complement this documentary style–as opposed to coffee-table–reportage. The postcard brevity of the text provides illuminating insights into Matthews’ thinking (?Ask to take photos–told OK as long as I don’t misrepresent the situation. Where does misrepresentation begin and end??) as well as filling us in on detail a single image never could (?We meet a woman accused of cutting open a dead woman and taking out her insides …?).

The voices of Iraqi, Palestinian and Afghan women speak to us through Women and War, not just via their penetrating portraits, but also in their own words. It is typical of Matthews’ modus operandi that she shares the pages of her first in-depth collection with these women who are the mainspring of it.

Time and time again, Matthews has been drawn back to bear witness to the aftermath of the world’s tragedies. She’s not a front-line photographer. Despite a self-confessed desire to “live dangerously”, Matthews is not interested in the bang-bang. In fact, she has a problem with guns per se, making the choice of image for the cover of this book all the more interesting. “Guns are for killing people,” she says simply. “But I like this picture–she’s a young African woman, very strong and very confident. It’s a sexy picture, the kind you need to open a book. The 200 or so pictures that follow challenge that image. It also serves to bring up the issue of guns and what war really means, even wars of liberation: people get killed.”

Matthews is clearly under no illusion that women can be killers and torturers; nowhere was this point more forcefully driven home than in Rwanda. But for the most part, what women do during wartime–and therefore what Matthews faithfully documents–is to continue to do everything they do in peacetime, but in more difficult circumstances.

Images of women as they prepare food, wash clothes, grow crops, give birth, raise children: this is classic Matthews territory. And when, as a result of warfare, women are raped, widowed, predeceased by their children, contract HIV or give birth to deformed babies poisoned by chemical warfare, Matthews records this too, with the same sense of humanity and dignity.
?People tell you the most terrible, terrible things as a photographer and all you can do is take a picture,? she says, ?but at least then I can show them to people and say that I think it’s wrong. It’s about how you change things. Issues like rape and HIV as a consequence of war are hard to represent. The last thing these women need is someone taking their picture. But if it doesn’t happen it’s like it doesn’t exist.?

One photograph, taken at the Piscina Camp in Tirana, Albania, shows the hands of two women clasped together. Their faces are not visible, but their long shadows create a silhouette of understanding. The accompanying text informs us the women at the refugee camp are being offered counselling and, if necessary, abortions after being raped in Kosovo. Repeated readings of this book uncover a revealing subtext in the lingua franca of the human hand. Women’s hands: weaving; washing; baking bread. Hands, cradling a gun, or a baby. Hands reclaiming power, hands united in solidarity or in grief.

Some of the women photographed here have no hands, and theirs are among the saddest stories. Take Taus Belashanova, who lost her hands in a rocket attack during the first Chechen war. Or Consolee, one of the few survivors of the Rwandan genocide, who had her right hand and most of her left hand cut off in a Hutu machete attack. We are confronted with 16-year-old Adamsay Bangura, whose home is the Amputee Camp in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Captured in Port Loko, after being “chopped” by rebel fighters, this young woman then witnessed her 2-year-old baby boy being axed to death.

And yet … from the depths of human tragedy, the indomitable spirit of women can still rise to the surface. To study Matthews’ pictures is to know that she has an intrinsic understanding of this spirit. Maybe it is due in part to her own femininity (undiminished despite protracted proximity to bang-bang), or maybe it’s because she has witnessed it and captured it on film countless times over the last two decades. From Kosovo to Palestine, the desire to paint on a smile for instant empowerment is the same. “Lipstick is simply the cheapest way to cheer yourself up,” says Matthews. “I’ve never seen so much red lipstick and nail varnish as during the war in Bosnia. It’s an act of defiance.” And if defiance is the public face of despair, then women the world over have at least one coping mechanism for grief.

The pictures chosen by Matthews for this collection resonate with a rare compassion. They serve to remind us that there is no glory in war, but after all the evils of the world have flown from Pandora’s war chest, there is one thing left: hope.

Max Houghton