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We all need a chance to express our stories

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In the remote and mystical valley of Verzasca in the Swiss canton of Ticino, Nina London found an exhibit of photographs of different sizes and without frames, anonymous and unsigned (Photograph supplied)

When I start a journey I never know what surprises lie ahead.

Yesterday, my husband, Bill, and I went for a hike through the lush hardwood forests of the Alps in the remote and mystical valley of Verzasca in the Swiss canton of Ticino.

After countless switchback turns, climbing up and into a wall of mountains, we came to a narrow valley.

A narrow, fast-flowing river, clear as crystal, tumbled over huge, white, granite boulders worn smooth since the Ice Age, forming pools and waterfalls and pebbled beaches.

Steep and verdant hillsides covered in chestnut forests shot skyward from the stony banks and transformed into sheer rockcliffs circled by raptors.

In an achingly blue sky was the jumble of cottony clouds swirling over summits glinting with glacial snow. Waterfalls tumbled down vast slabs of rock, carving their way through the deep forest green, their roar a distant, calming rumble until they splashed into the pure, silvery river winding through the canyon floor.

Small, stone villages were clinging to the hillsides in seemingly impossible locations. They are reached only by footpaths and were home to farmers who grazed their cows in tiny meadows speckled with wildflowers, high and safe during medieval times. There are no bright colours in these secluded settlements. The buildings are all made from slabs of grey stone piled and fitted perfectly together and surrounded by dark wood fences.

Our plan was to hike up into the mountains for several hours, then descend down into the valley, cross the river, and explore its far banks. For two hours we walked up, up, up on a steep path through the cool shade of the forest.

Then the rocky path levelled out and revealed tiny, stone houses, more like cabins, made of granite slabs, walls painstakingly fitted together with flat grey rocks without mortar. They had small windows and weathered doors with simple hand-wrought iron locks and hinges. Clear water bubbled into stone cisterns, carved from single rocks. Lush, green grass grew thigh-high in the sunlight of the open meadows, and there was fresh dew on the stalks, which gave them a mild sparkle in the morning light.

How could people live here? So much beauty, yet so little with which to survive! The cows, the chestnuts, the mushrooms, firewood and water — what else? It was the price you paid for safety in ancient times.

Our trail wound down to the river far below. We passed shrines to the Madonna with lovely, faded frescoes in the recessed alcoves, then the spire of a 14th-century church and the deep and solemn tolling of the bell tower at noon. Across from the tower, a wooden staircase led to the wide open door of an old building with an old mural of a Swiss boy blowing a giant alpenhorn.

Outside the door, a modern sign announced in Italian and French: Esposizione fotografica: Nous, les mamans (Photo exhibition: We, the mothers). I climbed the stairs and went into the house.

It was a long, empty room with soft light from the shuttered windows and we saw the first modern touch — bright spotlights directed on photographs mounted on the unpainted stone walls.

The pictures were of different sizes, without frames, simply attached to the walls. All the photographs were anonymous, unsigned.

There was one of a woman in a burka, her face obscured by the green leaves of a plant she was holding to hide herself. Another photo was of a woman in Muslim robe, only her hands visible, washing clothes. Then a pregnant, dark-skinned girl in a bright red dress, a spoon, a glowing match, a child’s toy. Simple scenes from a country far away. They were unprofessional, yet powerful in their simplicity.

We began reading the introduction, which was printed on a separate board on the walls.

Nathalie Vigini, who lives in this valley, is a photographer. She spent a month in Casablanca at INSAF, a charity that helps unmarried mothers. In Morocco, sex outside marriage is illegal and can be punished by a year of imprisonment. An unmarried pregnant woman is equated to a prostitute. Having a child outside of a religious marriage is a moral shame and the mothers are abandoned by their family and society.

Nathalie taught a group of six single mothers, aged 18 to 23, the basics of photography. For a month, they had a safe space to work and share their experiences. They were able to learn a new art form and discuss the difficult realities of their situations. They began to photograph their daily lives and also tell their stories, both visually and personally.

This exhibition is part of the PhotoVoice project, a free programme in which people that are socially vulnerable due to language, race, sex, class, ethnicity, culture or other discriminating circumstances can create photographic images, often for the first time.

We all need a chance to express ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we live in the desert, high in the mountains, or on a far-flung island. We all want to be heard because our stories are who we are.

My walk in the forest ended in images from the desert. Yet, both reminded me of how difficult and harsh life can be, and how safety and freedom should be a right for all of us no matter when or where we live.

Nina London is a certified wellness and weight-management coach. Her mission is to support and inspire mature women to make positive changes in their body and mind. Share your inspirational stories with her at ninalondon.com

Swiss adventure: Nina London explores the forests of the Alps (Photograph by Bill Rosser)