The International Rescue Committee's Vision Not Victim Project enabled adolescent girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo to envision a positive future for themselves, and by sharing their ambitions, create change in their lives and communities. Learn more from the photographer behind the project.

Her age, her gender, her place in society make her uniquely vulnerable to violence, exploitation and abuse. She can be pulled from school; she can be traded and bartered in early marriage; she is often the last in her household to have access to health care and even food.

She's a girl. She wants stability, opportunity, experience, and a respected place among her family and in the community. She is poised to realise her potential, to plan for the future, to transform her community.

In the summer of 2010, I was working with a local girls organisation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Congo is an exceptionally difficult place to be female. Domestic violence and sexual assault against women have become the norm. Rape is used as a weapon of war. Very few of adolescent girls are ever asked about what they envision for their life, what they want to be when they grow up.

Being a photographer, I wanted to use images to encourage these young girls to explore and share their potential and possibilities. I was drawn to the profession because I believe that as much as photographs help us understand terrible truths about war and poverty, as in Congo, they can also help us see the world in a new light: they can showcase our triumphant moments, illuminate role models and create positive visions of the future. As much as photographs can reinforce stereotypes, they can also break them down and offer another side of a story. 

In 2013, in partnership with the International Rescue Committee, I conceived the Vision not Victim Project with the aim of creating images that depict the talents and potential of young Congolese women. For three months, I worked with several groups of girls from a rural community called Katagota and from Bukavu, a major city.

With female leaders from the area, we asked the project participants, ages 11 to 16, to discuss their goals, their imagined personal and professional lives, their visions for their country. They had witnessed the consequences of absent medical care and rampant corruption; but they had ideas, and they wanted to be the ones who would change Congo.

We asked every girl to sketch a scene illustrating herself achieving a central goal. Then we recreated the scene and captured it in photographs.

Our first shoot was with Yvette, who interestingly wanted to be a photographer. She envisioned herself directing a fashion shoot, and so we set up lights and equipment in a field behind a cluster of houses in Katagota.

With a camera in hand, Yvette entered the scene. She was not miming a part, and remained completely herself, yet  she was trying on her future. She grew assertive and confident, addressing instructions to her model, reveling in her growing audience. Meanwhile, I quietly snapped my own photographs.

Other participants experienced similar transformations. With a few props, and travelling to different places around the region—a university, a radio station, a local hospital—the girls stepped into their roles with a boldness and poise that was astonishing.

For example, I expected Alliance, who imagined herself as a university professor, to be timid in front of  a classroom of much older college students. Without a pause, without hesitation, she moved to the front of the class, introduced herself, and began to expound her views on the architecture of Bukavu. At the end of her lecture, she asked for questions. Half of the class raised their hands, and she authoritatively addressed each query as I crouched in the back and took photos.

The final stage of the project, printing the photographs and distributing them to the girls, was perhaps the most poignant and moving moment of the exercise. The rooms where the girls would gather would grow quiet as we handed out the photographs. The girls would look at their images with wonder, tracing their faces, their captured motions. Then they would look at one another and explode with laughter, shouts, smiles, dashing off to show their pictures to their parents. Several mothers were ecstatic, grasping up their daughters to show the images to neighbours and friends.

The images of this project are crystallised moments that represent the ambitions and potential of these adolescent girls. They are unique, not because of their aesthetic style, but because of the collaborative process that produced them. Young women took control over the design and creation of their own representations, and produced images with messages for their peers, their communities, the world—most importantly, for themselves.

These photographs, of course, do not offer a long-term solution for the problems girls face in Congo, but they are a small step toward giving young women greater control over their lives and their futures. The images serve as a visual reminder for us, as well: that when we donate or advocate for any group in crisis, we remember that we are investing in the transformation of a place and of people who, like these extraordinary young girls, can create change and lead us all towards a better future.

Meredith Hutchison is a photographer and advocate who first partnered with the IRC on the Vision Not Victim Project and has since joined the IRC's Women’s Protection and Empowerment Unit to expand the project to new locations. She has worked at the intersection of media and development in Central and North Africa, and the Caribbean over the past six years. Meredith holds a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University and a BA in Comparative Literature from the University of Pittsburgh.