Hearing the Stories of hidden women

The Southcoates Lane Community in Hull got to know photojournalist Lee Stow last year through her work for the James Reckett Library Trust, collecting oral histories of local people for the 'Untold Hull project. Sisters Agnes, Nora and Imelda generously shared some of their experiences in Mercy ministry.

Lee then offered to share another aspect of her work with the Sisters: that of collecting the untold stories of women worldwide, who have been affected by war. In Lee’s own words:

"Poppies: Women, War, Peace" grew organically from documentary photographic work which began in 2007 with women trying to rebuild lives in post-civil war Sierra Leone, West Africa. Women who had shown great strength, resilience and optimism despite having lived through one of the most brutal wars in recent history.

Then a conversation with highly-respected Dr Nick Evans of the 'Remember Me Project' and 'WISE,' who noticed I was photographing poppies in the fields around my home in East Yorkshire, led me to the largely-unknown fact that in 1918 American volunteer war secretary, Moïna Belle Michael, conceived of the red poppy flower as a symbol of remembrance.  

I was astonished because each November she is forgotten. As are Moïna’s decades of campaigning work to raise funds for returning veterans and their families. Around the same time French woman Madame Anna E Guérin encouraged war widows to hand make red poppies to sell to raise funds for orphans in France.In 1921 Anna introduced the idea to England where it was taken up by the (Royal) British Legion. The rest is history.

Each year thousands of women suffer as a result of war, their stories lost behind the bigger stories from the battlefields. Poppies: Women, War, Peace therefore, initially concerned with Moïna and Anna, grew to combine photographic portraits of largely forgotten women affected by or involved in war, from the First World War to conflicts of today, with images of the common cornflower poppy (Papaver rhoeas) growing in its natural environment.

I use the poppy as a metaphor for women affected by war because, despite its delicate appearance, the poppy grows and survives where everything else has been destroyed. It generates new life when its seed, often dormant for years, is exposed to light following great trauma and upheaval. The flower reminds me of the spirit and resilience of women who have gone through hell and yet somehow find the will to carry on.

However this is not an attempt to cover every conflict, how could I? This is not a shopping list. The reality is that war is a never-ending maze for those who dare to enter. My research, initially inspired by the women of Sierra Leone and Moïna Belle Michael’s vision, grows as women and their stories enter into my own awakening of the cost and aftermath of war and conflict.

I wasn’t aware for instance, of my own mother’s childhood during the four year blitz of Hull during the Second orld War. How she hid in terror beneath the kitchen table as bombs rained down, emerging into daylight to see broken homes and broken lives. ‘You never told me,’ I said. ‘You never asked,’ she replied. I began to ask more. 


Poppy Display at the Silk Mill in Derby
Remembrance Day 2017

The exhibition has been touring for several years so the community felt very privileged to receive their own show. The Sisters felt her work was really Mercy in that it gave voice to those who usually have no voice and who are usuall forgotten in conflicts.                                                    

Lee also highlighted the role
women have had and continue to have in peace-making. Her current exhibition 'Torn'  uses the words of refugee women and images of dried poppy petals to illustrate the effects of war.

Lee is going to Chernobyl and Kiev in April to record more women’s stories which have  been hidden.


To see and learn more of Lee Stow’s work: www.leekarenstow.                             (Lee Stow 04/07/16 on the Remember Me Project website)       

Sr. Bernadette Roche