Humber Street Gallery’s latest exhibition Torn, opening Mon 6 Nov, features work from Hull-based photographer Lee Karen Stow. Having begun her career as a journalist, Lee’s work now focuses on long-term documentation of women and their stories in war-torn countries.
She has visited and photographed women across the world, including in Hull’s sister city Freetown in Sierra Leone, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Cambodia and the West Bank, and listened to their stories of being torn from their families, their homes and their lives.
She has also documented the stories of Holocaust survivors and women from Somalia, Syria, Ethiopia, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo who have arrived in both Hull and the US as refugees.
Lee said: “These intimate encounters revealed an untold story that I really wanted to tell and show. These stories I have told from the perspective of the women who were there. Remembering these stories is not to negate the impact of war on men, but to acknowledge the suffering of women, and to recognise that it is often women who are the ones left to pick up the pieces.”
The photographs carefully curated for this exhibition feature poppies that have been picked, dried and torn apart by Lee herself.
Inspired to find out more about the flowers and their symbolism, Lee had been researching their significance, unearthing the often-forgotten story of the birth of the red poppy as a symbol of remembrance.
Lee continued: “It was conceived by American woman Moïna Belle Michael and French woman Madame Anna E Guérin in 1918 as a symbol of grief and a declaration of hope, for peace and an end to war. A century on and the poppy remembrance symbol, although giving comfort to the bereaved, has wandered from its original purpose. Likewise, each November, Michael and Guérin are forgotten, as are many women affected by war, whose stories are lost behind the bigger headlines and the politics surrounding the symbol.”
While unpacking some poppies she had set aside to dry in 2016, the news broke of a bombing of a hospital in Syria. In frustration Lee tore the poppy in her hand and threw it down on the table.
She said: “TORN represents my own personal frustration and anger, as I watched war and conflict happening again, and again, with women and girls being disproportionately affected. I thought nothing has changed in the decade that I have been documenting this.
“But when I looked again at the shredded petals I picked them up and tried to reconstruct them and make something beautiful out of the damage. Suddenly I was reminded of the strength, resilience and resourcefulness demonstrated by women. Women who somehow manage to pick up the pieces and carry on, providing for their families and often becoming active advocates for peace.”
Suddenly I was reminded of the strength, resilience and resourcefulness demonstrated by women. Women who somehow manage to pick up the pieces and carry on, providing for their families and often becoming active advocates for peace.
David Sinclair, Curator at Humber Street Gallery, said: “Lee’s work really highlights the hidden impacts of war and conflict in a really beautiful way. It forces us to think more broadly about the ripple effect on those who aren’t on the front line, but on those who deal with different, but equally devastating, consequences.”
Lee said: “Not only do the impacts of war ripple through families, but through time too. There are many men who have served in wars who are still feeling the effects and there are many women who are still trying to rebuild their lives, their families, their homes and their communities.
“Remembrance shouldn’t be just for one day in November or just about looking back, because it’s every day now that war and conflict are ruining the lives of thousands of women and girls.
“I hope this opens up a conversation, but that talk turns into greater awareness and action, because women and girls’ lives are being torn apart. Women and girls are dying; experiencing sexual exploitation, harassment and trafficking; abuse and torture; and being displaced from everything they’ve known.”
Torn runs 6 Nov – 31 Dec at Humber Street Gallery.