Inner Light

Srey Oun was at a market in Kandal province when a woman rushed up to her and doused her with acid—a jealousy-fueled attack that caused the 36-year-old mother to lose one eye and become blind in the other.

Sokneang was watching television at her home in Preah Vihear province when a woman similarly splashed her with acid, leaving the 35-year-old with serious burns to her face and left side of her body.

Chantheoun, 40, was attacked with acid in Phnom Penh in 1997. (Ann-Christine Woehrl)
Chantheoun, 40, was attacked with acid in Phnom Penh in 1997. (Ann-Christine Woehrl)

German-French photographer Ann-Christine Woehrl met these women as part of her project documenting survivors of fire and acid attacks in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Uganda.

“IN/VISIBLE,” a series of portraits and scenes of daily life, will be exhibited for the first time in Cambodia at Phnom Penh’s Meta House on Saturday night.

“These women are visibly disfigured and have become invisible to their society, ostracized by their communities,” Ms. Woehrl said in an email from Munich this week.

“My intention in the project is therefore to show the women as survivors and heroines, rather than victims.”

Acid violence remains a concern in Cambodia, though the number of reported attacks has dropped sharply in the last five years.

Where 2010 saw 20 assaults, there were only three reported attacks in 2015, according to Erin Bourgois, a former program manager at the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC) who has continued to monitor acid violence in the country.

The organization attributes the decline in part to the passage of the Acid Law in 2012, which carries harsher penalties for perpetrators, and a 2013 sub-decree regulating the sale and use of concentrated acid.

Chantheoun at her Phnom Penh home (Ann-Christine Woehrl)
Chantheoun at her Phnom Penh home (Ann-Christine Woehrl)

Despite this progress, Ms. Bourgois said, the country still struggles to support survivors of past attacks as there is virtually no government budget for their care and CASC—the primary organization working with acid survivors—has phased out much of its support.

“As you can imagine, the physical and permanent effects of acid attacks require long-term medical and surgical treatment, physiotherapy, pressure garments,” she said. “That doesn’t even address the emotional and psychological trauma. So counseling, peer support, that sort of long-term support is needed.”

Ms. Woehrl said many of the survivors she met suffered from depression, and that some had attempted suicide.

“Apart from their disfigurement, causing unbearable physical pain during and after the attack, these women are emotionally affected and bear a lifelong trauma,” she said.

The photographer was inspired to start her project after meeting a burn victim at the opening of an art exhibit in Germany about a decade ago. In 2011, she secured funding from the German cultural foundation VG Bild-Kunst’s Stiftung Kulturwerk and got to work.

For the final series, published in a book released in 2014, she selected eight women from each country.

“I followed one of those women in each country more closely in their daily life to show what it really means to live with that stigma and to show also their strength and courage [in] how the women moved on in their lives,” she said.

Left: Sokneang, 35, was attacked with acid in Preah Vihear province in 2005. Right: Srey Oun, 36, survived an acid attack in Kandal province in 1999. (Ann-Christine Woehrl)
Left: Sokneang, 35, was attacked with acid in Preah Vihear province in 2005. Right: Srey Oun, 36, survived an acid attack in Kandal province in 1999. (Ann-Christine Woehrl)

Though she initially focused on women, about a third of some 40 survivors she met in Cambodia were men.

“The interesting thing about Cambodia is half of the victims are men and half are women, and same with the perpetrators in Cambodia, half are men and half are women—unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh, other countries where it’s usually a male perpetrator and a female victim,” Ms. Bourgois said.

Bunnarith, another of Ms. Woehrl’s subjects, is a former businessman and father of three who was attacked by his wife at their home in Pursat province. The 46-year-old became blind as a result, and suffered severe burns to his face, neck, ears, chest and arms.

“It’s not just a love-triangle issue,” Ms. Bourgois added. “It can be political disputes, business disputes.”

And it is the silence of both male and female victims that remains one of the greatest obstacles to accurately tracking, preventing and addressing acid violence, she said.

“A lot of cases, as with acid violence around the world, go unreported for a variety of reasons, the main one being victims fear retribution from the perpetrator or the perpetrator’s family,” Ms. Bourgois said.

“They have lack of confidence and trust in the police and judicial system to follow up on the case,” she added.

This fear and sense of hopelessness, along with the stigma associated with disfigurements and disability, is what Ms. Woehrl hopes to change through her photographs.

“I’ve realized that we, the people in the society, are making the people with ‘abnormal’ looks, such as the scars and disfigurements, invisible and that we are the ones deepening the scars in their souls,” she said.

“By taking their pictures I am giving them a voice. I want to show their struggle but also their tremendous courage to go on with their lives.”

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Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the project documented survivors in Afghanistan and Iran.

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