Magazine article American Journalism Review

Shedding Light on Female Circumcision

Magazine article American Journalism Review

Shedding Light on Female Circumcision

Article excerpt

Female circumcision, a rite of passage in several African and Arab nations, is a subject most people don't even want to discuss, much less witness.

That wasn't the case with Stephanie Welsh, 22, who won this year's Pulitzer Prize for feature photography with graphic photos she took of a female circumcision ritual in Kenya. (The photos were distributed by Newhouse News Service.) Welsh, a photography intern at the Palm Beach Post when the awards were announced, is among the youngest winners ever, and possibly the only person ever to win while still an intern.

Welsh, a recent graduate of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, took a year off from her studies in the summer of 1994 to intern at the Nation, an English-language daily in Nairobi. Harry DiOrio, photography director for Newhouse's two newspapers in Syracuse, where Welsh had interned the previous spring, gave her 100 rolls of film to take with her to shoot a story about the spread of AIDS in Africa. But Welsh had her own story in mind, a story that she had to pursue on her own time because the Nation had no interest in it.

Before she left for Africa, Welsh had read a book by Alice Walker on female circumcision, known more politically but also more accurately as female genital mutilation, and once she arrived she wanted to see the practice for herself and form her own opinions about it.

"It's so hard to relate my world to theirs," Welsh says. "They take this as a really significant rite of passage, and you can't come in and condemn them wholesale without figuring out what it means to them."

So she set out to do just that, traveling by herself that December to a Maasai village where she witnessed and took photos of a circumcision, but ultimately left disappointed. In this particular village, many of the villagers had come in contact with Westerners before and knew that white people generally condemned the ritual.

"They asked me to go milk cows during the ceremony," she says. "They tried to shield a lot from me, to make it seem less severe."

Welsh thought she had failed, but the images of the ceremony stayed with her. Determined to be better prepared for her next opportunity, she began learning the native language and searching for a more rural village where she would be accepted with fewer preconceived notions.

Welsh took a day-long bus ride in April 1995 to a remote part of Kenya called the Samburu district. …

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