I have worked in Uganda a few times now, and love the country and the people and I was really moved when I heard from Lynne Pritchard of Red Earth Education, that her friend’s family were launching an award in memory of a photographer who died there on assignment. I looked up the work of Rebecca Vassie and saw immediately that she had such a terrific eye for story-telling and documentary capture. I was incredibly moved, as her death was not as a result of warfare but medical, a life cut short, and the world is bereft of her emotional style and drive. We interview, Rebecca’s sister, Kelly Vassie for her memories of Becky and why the’ve set up the Rebecca Vassie Memorial Award.
Can you tell us about the award you have launched, what it means to you, why you set it up?
We set up the Rebecca Vassie Trust in the aftermath of Rebecca’s sudden death in March last year. A lot of people came forward wanting to support a good cause in her memory. We decided to create something to honour Rebecca’s life and work – and, crucially, to help other photographers pursue similar professional paths. The Rebecca Vassie Memorial Award is our way to do this – it’s a £1,200 bursary, plus printing, exhibition and mentorship, for an up-and-coming photographer to complete a project they would not otherwise have the means to do. In tandem with Rebecca’s values, the project must have a ‘narrative’ or ‘documentary’ approach, with a strong sense of social and political context.
Can you tell us about Rebecca?
It’s still hard for me to talk much about Rebecca at a personal or sisterly level. She was vibrant, determined, loyal and loving. We all loved her, and we all miss her. A good way to understand her character is that in her mid-twenties she found herself living and working in London but somewhat ‘stuck’ professionally.
She was struggling to get the break she needed as a photographer, and was either doing dull (to her!) work like assisting on shoots for car adverts, or ‘money jobs’ to pay the rent.
So one day she just decided to pack her bags, move to Uganda and become a photojournalist. She’d always had an interest in East Africa but she arrived knowing no-one. Within weeks she was working for a major Ugandan newspaper – then increasingly for international newspapers, the Associated Press, and charities / NGOs. She traveled all over Uganda, generally covering military, political, medical or humanitarian stories – often heavy stuff, such as outbreaks of disease or refugee influxes from the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, two highly unstable neighbouring countries, but occasionally lighter stories. On one bizarre occasion she shot models in the annual Miss Uganda contest being taught to milk cows.
Do you have an example of her work, or a particular story or charity she covered that meant something to you and your family in particular?
As Rebecca went from assignment to assignment in Uganda she honed her sense of who she was as a photographer and what kind of work she most believed in – both in terms of her technical approach to photography and her sense of what mattered in the world.
Aesthetically, she liked to play with depth of field, putting just one detail or person in focus in a busy scene – the detail she picked often told the story more eloquently than a group shot could. In terms of values, she increasingly sought to photograph people who were oppressed, marginalised or displaced. She created a series of remarkable portraits of women in refugee camps, using portraits to capture how they felt but also achieving some remarkable snapshots of day-to-day life.
In a similar vein, she was working with members of Uganda’s persecuted gay and transgender community. She took some striking and widely-used pictures of the 2014 Pride rally in Entebbe, whose participants risked persecution just for turning up, and at the time of her death she was working on a less journalistic, more artful series of portraits of transgender men, in which they would wear face masks onto which their preferred identity was projected.
What was she covering when she died?
At the time of her death Rebecca was documenting conditions in Kyangwali, a large refugee camp in western Uganda.
She was due to be there for a week. It was the first day; she’d taken hundreds of photos. Rebecca was asthmatic and also allergic to peanuts. She always travelled with a bag full of medical supplies – epi-pens, inhalers, a nebuliser. That evening she ate a communal meal with others working at the camp. She knew Ugandan food well and what ingredients were usually found in different dishes, and did not realise that the sauce she was eating had in this case been made with groundnuts (peanuts). It’s believed that she had an allergic reaction which in turn triggered a severe asthma attack, made worse by a recent chest infection and dry, dusty conditions. The camp’s power supply was insufficient to power her nebuliser and their medical tent lacked the knowledge or facilities to treat her. She was rushed back to the capital, Kampala, in a UNHCR ambulance but the journey was more than four hours and, tragically, she did not survive.
You have a wider vision for the Trust which includes providing professional development for experienced as well as opportunities for upcoming photographers? Can you tell us a bit more about what you hope the Trust will do and be able to support and inspire?
The key goal for the Trust is to act as a bridge between early-career opportunities – of which there are quite a few – and the kind of momentum that established photographers have. In our research we found many programmes aimed at new graduates or under-25s, but far fewer at the next level up. Our vision is to support photographers who are likely to be a few years beyond graduation and to have acquired some professional credits, but who are not yet earning a full-time salary from photography. In particular we want to help those who do not benefit from private / family subsidy.
The Award is for photographers either from, or working in, the UK. In other words we could support a British photographer working anyway in the world – as Rebecca did. Finally, we want our support to be truly accessible. For example we will accept audio submissions to our Award from people who find writing difficult, such as dyslexic people. We want to reward and enable great photography, not slick writing.
How are you funding this?
We’ve funded our work so far in three ways:
Firstly, we are selling prints of Rebecca’s photographs through our partners at Metro Imaging. We have an online shop at https://metroonline.co.uk/297 and you can order images at different sizes, framed or unframed, and have them carefully packaged and delivered to your door.
Secondly, people have been donating directly to the Trust, mainly through PayPal via our website https://rebeccavassietrust.org/donate/ . We’re Gift Aid-registered so donations can be offset against tax and we get an additional 25p for every pound donated by a British taxpayer.
Finally, people are undertaking sponsored activities. Colin Nicholson, a family member, completed a sponsored triathlon in Rebecca’s memory, and two other trustees – Thorbjørn Tellefsen, a university friend of Beccy’s, and Adam Barnard, my fiancé – are planning sponsored runs in her memory.
We’re very proud to have funded our first Award through these means but it will be crucial going forward that we continue to raise funds so that the Award can be repeated in future years, and other planned activities to support emerging photographers can be brought to fruition.
The Judges for the award include Karen McQuaid, curator at the Photographers’ Gallery, Matthew Tucker, UK Picture Editor at BuzzFeed, and Bette Lynch, Director of Photography, news, Europe, Middle East and Africa at Getty Images. This is a fantastic panel and offers a wonderful opportunity for entrants submitting proposals. What will be the next steps after judging? In what way do you hope the winner will benefit from it the most?
After the deadline (Friday, 7 October) the Trustees will review all the applications and compile a longlist, which will be passed to the judges. The judges will select a shortlist who will be interviewed either in person in London, or over Skype. From this a winner will be selected. The judges may also choose one or more runners-up who will receive support including mentoring. The winner, once chosen, can immediately get to work on the project we’re funding them to do. They’ll have around four months to finish it before the exhibition we’re planning in London in March 2017 of both the winner’s work and some of Rebecca’s pictures. This exhibition will also be used to launch the next phase of the Trust’s activities. Our hope is that the winner will be able to break new ground both in terms of their photography practice and in terms of their professional access and visibility.
Do you have a favourite memory of Rebecca?
There are so many – but one more recent one springs to mind which seems relevant. One day early in her time in Uganda, Rebecca was suddenly calling me, texting, emailing, Facebooking – incredibly urgent – I had to drop everything and immediately go to the shops and buy that day’s Independent newspaper – no, several copies! Her work was in it – her first professional credit in a British newspaper – a striking double-page spread about nodding disease, an illness that had broken out in northern Uganda, in which her images were given real prominence. She wouldn’t stop calling until I’d convinced her that we had a stack of newspapers sitting in the flat. In time, this kind of credit became so commonplace she stopped even mentioning it to us and we’d only find out her latest achievements by searching her name on Google News.
To enter the award, follow and support the trust visit:
The Websites : www.rebeccavassietrust.org
Facebook : www.facebook.com/RebeccaVassieTrust
Instagram : https://www.instagram.com/rebecca.vassie/
To buy prints and support:
https://metroonline.co.uk/297 you can order images at different sizes, framed or unframed, and have them carefully packaged and delivered to your door.
People have been donating directly to the Trust, mainly through PayPal via our website https://rebeccavassietrust.org/donate/ .
thank you for your love and support..