Tiwon Lema, age 77, from the series The Market Workers, 2014 © JONI KABANA

They tended fires, planted seedlings and carried babies. Some simply stood in front of their temporary huts built of branches, grasses and white-plastic tarps. Here in the encampments for internally displaced persons in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Joni Kabana photographed as much as she could that January 2009 day, before nearby gunfire was heard and passports were collected.

Seven thousand Rwandan troops had crossed into the DRC to drive out the Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. “I felt like my safety was at risk,” recalls Kabana, who was on assignment for Mercy Corps International, a humanitarian aid and development organization. “I was their first photographer ever to abort an assignment early. It was agonizing asking permission to leave the escalating situation, but in the end, I was assured it was the right decision.” She ended up bringing home many photographs that Mercy Corps used. “I knew that it was right, for me, to choose safety over the glory of getting the most intense imagery.”

Though she draws the line at life-threatening situations, Kabana thrives within the discomfort of the unknown. “That’s when I feel most alive and my senses are fiercely alert.” She admits to being “a bit of a curiosity junkie,” interested in how she can best engage when she’s working within a situation that’s foreign to her. Whether she’s taking photos of families halfway around the world or portraits of homeless people right in her own city of Portland, Oregon, what thrills Kabana the most, she says, “is when the subject is deeply appreciative of the image. This to me is the highest level of the benefits of a photographic image, along with bringing to the masses the awareness and motivation to take action on a condition or issue.”

From children in Bhutan and tea farmers in Darjeeling to demon-driving Malagasy spiritual shepherds in Madagascar and midwives in Ethiopia, Kabana has traveled the world photographing, mostly people. Here in the United States, she has turned her digital camera toward women prisoners and ballet dancers, Native American rodeo cowboys and a professional rock climber, children with cancer and corporate staffs. With a background also in editorial, portrait and commercial photography, Kabana has shifted her focus towards activism over the past nine years. Much of her work is multimedia-based; she collects still imagery and sound for videos produced by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which also include her photographs, and she writes guest blogs, as well as her own.

She is most recognized for her humanitarian photographs related to the unfairness in global women’s health. “How multiple thousands of women every year can still die during childbirth is an atrocity, and I can’t understand why we have not yet altered these circumstances,” says Kabana, 60, herself a mother of three grown children.

Had she been born and lived in Ethiopia or any other developing country, in trying to give birth she likely would have ended up with an obstetric fistula. Since 2010, through her photos, Kabana has shed necessary light on this widespread childbearing injury suffered by two million women worldwide, with 100,000 new cases every year. An obstetric fistula is a hole between the bladder or rectum, and the vagina, caused by several days of painfully obstructed — and unattended — labor, often resulting in stillbirth and threatening the mother’s life. If the woman survives and doesn’t get treatment, chances are she faces a lifetime of incontinence. Given Ethiopia’s rugged terrain and long distances to the nearest health care centers, many people simply can’t make the trip to a physician. Midwives are scarce, and inadequately trained to deal with obstetric fistulas.

Then there are the midwives who are properly trained; since 2010, 54 of them have graduated from the Hamlin College of Midwives in Ethiopia. For Hamlin Fistula USA, Kabana’s camera tells the stories of Addisalem and other Ethiopian women. The Tanzanian organization, Maternity Africa has also benefited from Kabana’s images in its efforts to stamp out obstetric fistulas. Her photos appear in Footsteps to Healing: A Global Commitment to Improving Women’s Health in Rural Ethiopia, by Rahel Nardos, M.D. and Phillipa Riddink, M.D., one of six books published by Kabana and/or others that include her work. The American Society of Media Photographers named her “Best of 2008” for her Mercy Corps International photos of cardamom- and tea-plantation projects in India and Nepal, and one of the “Best of 2011” for her documentary photos of emergency obstetrics in rural Ethiopia.

Lewis Wall, M.D., D.Phil., president of Hamlin Fistula USA, says, “Joni captures the human spirit that’s there in spite of all the difficulties. Through her photos, the potential donor gets a connection with the issue or the person on the other side of the world, and that stirs their compassion, which then leads to action. Our organization’s skills, activities and products — combined with her visual storytelling — make an impact that neither of us could do as well, individually.”

Read More in Photographer’s Forum :: Spring 2017 / Vol. 39 / No. 2