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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”