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  • July 20, 2015

A Photographer Explores Sweden’s Secret Summer Camps

Every summer in Sweden, abused women and their children are transported to an undisclosed location for three therapeutic days of lake swimming, music, and bonfire parties. According to photographer Åsa Sjöström, many of them immigrated to Sweden from places like Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan and are now living in shelters to escape familial abuse, honor killing, or genital mutilation.

These women require the utmost protection, as any information about their whereabouts can be dangerous.

two girls in swimsuits holding balloons on their faces
  

The camps are lush and scenic, and the women’s stories are compelling, but how do you make a portrait of someone whose identity needs to remain hidden? Sjöström’s project “Secret Camps” captures the women and children at play while creatively obscuring their identities with balloons, hair, flowers, and veils.

girls in brush picking flowers
 

Given the tight security, Sjöström wanted to make sure her presence would not further endanger the women. “The first time I went to a camp I didn’t want to be told where we were going—I didn’t want to have that responsibility,” she says. “I wanted to go under the same circumstances as everyone else. We got on a bus and nobody knew where we were going. No one could have GPS turned on on their phones. We had no Facebook or Instagram. I was quite scared because I didn’t want any woman to be found because of my pictures.”

Unlike most summer camps, these campers were quite hesitant at first. Sjöström says,“Very few of them knew each other, and they were trying to sort out where they were. They were scared to go into the forest. They were isolated, and many of them didn’t really like it at first.”

long haired girl wading into water
 

Sjöström knew she needed to ease into photographing. “The first day at the camp I hardly took any pictures. I wanted them to introduce me first. I had to know who didn’t want to be photographed. After that I started taking pictures very slowly—not snapping around all the time. This project was very different because when I saw a picture happening I had to go behind it, instead of in front of it.”

woman obscuring face with veil
 

“It was hard with the children in the beginning. They would say, ‘Why can’t we show our faces?’ It was quite heartbreaking. I had to explain it to them. After a while they understood and when they saw me coming they knew to cover their faces—like the girls with balloons.”

women and children wading in lake
 

As the camp progressed, the mood changed. “When the mothers saw that the children started playing with each other, they relaxed and started becoming happier,” Sjöström says. “They had a bonfire party in the evening, played music, dressed up, took off their veils and went swimming. Some had never been swimming in a lake before.”

girl on bed with wings on
 

According to Sjöström, the contrast between the conditions at the shelters and camp life is quite stark. “When they’re crowded it’s really hard, especially when they bring all of their children and share a kitchen, share everything. Tensions can be really high at the shelters. These women are often in traumatic situations, they cry a lot, and some of them have never been outside of their apartments. Just the fact that they have escaped makes them vulnerable, and a lot of them go back to their husbands again because they are too scared to go back into society.”

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Sjöström says this project began as work for a commissioned book and later grew into a personal project. She had already built a reputation for covering women’s rights issues with Sweden’s International Women’s Rights Association, which made her a good fit for the project. It also helped that she herself is a woman—even the author of the book wasn’t allowed at the camps because he’s a man. All of his interviews for the book were conducted separately, away from the camps.

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As “Secret Camps” gets distributed more broadly, Sjöström says she hopes the summer camp concept will be adopted in other places. “The camps are truly amazing, so I hope more organizations start doing this,” she says. “It’s especially important for the children to get outside and play without thinking about hiding or their mothers crying all the time.”


View more of Åsa Sjöström’s work on her website, and send an email here to request the book Summer’s Sheerest Light, which includes Sjöström’s photographs of the camps and text written by Lars Åberg.

There are 11 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. penny
    September 25, 2015

    what makes a mad so atrocious to abuse their wife and child? what can we,a ordinary person,to help those poor women?

  2. MH
    September 23, 2015

    Wow, just wow, great work by Sweden and Asa…

  3. Mohammad Nattagh
    September 3, 2015

    I live in Iran. Every time I go to streets of my Country I see the Fear and Distrust in women’s eyes. If you want to respect to Human’s Right and have a beautiful life with your Lover, I don’t know!! but Iran have a great distance to achieve and accept it as the most commen Human’s Rights. (to not shame from loving each other! .)

  4. Tanti Amelia
    August 11, 2015

    Speechless…. :((

  5. Kirsty
    July 21, 2015

    it makes me so happy to see these woman and children get the help they need. To help them feel like their old selves. Great work.

  6. SONAL
    July 21, 2015

    The initiative is very good in order to ease these women from trauma of their life. But I have 2 questions. 1. How these ladies were actually contacted and invited for thus programme? These ladies are surely not in shape of taking own decision about coming for this trip. If so, why they don’t they go to police and get rescued.
    2. If you have found that they are been abused, why don’t you or the police find a permanent shelter for them? Why do they have to go back to the abusers?

    • Janna Dotschkal
      July 21, 2015

      Hi Sonal,

      According to the photographer, most of the women live in shelters that are highly protected. She told me that she took great care to make sure that her photographs would not put them at risk.

  7. Garrett
    July 20, 2015

    It is great the the women and their children are able to relax during their stay at the summer camp. But as Yvonne pointed out, their abusers can recognize their wives and children. What happens when they get back to reality?

    • Janna Dotschkal
      July 20, 2015

      Hi Garrett,

      Since most of the women live in shelters that are highly protected, the fact that their abusers might recognize them in a unidentifiable location from a year and a half ago is unlikely to put them at risk.

  8. tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead
    July 20, 2015

    I bow and take my hat off to the photographer for the expressive shots!

  9. Yvonne
    July 20, 2015

    The men that were abusing still recognize their wifes and children, a glimpse is enough

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