For a documentary photographer and filmmaker whose favourite approach is to let stories unfold and grow naturally, could there be a better subject than the ‘Seed-Keepers’ of Guinea-Bissau? Vanessa Ribeiro Rodrigues spent a month on the West African country’s palm tree-studded archipelagos [the bijagós], meeting these inspiring women and amplifying their voice that could help communities much further afield.
Vanessa first encountered the story while teaching investigative journalism in Guinea-Bissau in 2021. “As a storyteller,” she explains, “I was looking around for new stories. I was familiar with the work of the NGO Tiniguena, whose projects were an interesting mix of eco feminism, agroecology, empowerment and sustainability. When someone mentioned the work of the ‘Seed-Keepers,’ I was so intrigued by what this meant and the important mission they were doing that I just knew I had to meet their stories.”
These women, part of the Bijagós ethnic group, lived in the Community Marine Protected Area of the Urok Islands, and their role was to guarantee food sovereignty and security in the face of many challenges: the rising sea levels and increasing rainfall of climate change, as well as economic and industrial threats to the islands’ indigenous crops such as the monoculture of cashew.
But there were strands of inequality woven into the sustainability story she wanted to share, too. “Agriculture in Guinea-Bissau is based on the work of rural women,” Vanessa continues, “and it is they who are responsible for the nutritional security of their families. However, less than one percent of these women own the land they farm, due to discriminatory laws and practices”. Inspired to share their story, Vanessa embarked on a multimedia project which has so far yielded multiple features in Portuguese and international papers, a full-length documentary feature to be released this year, and will soon form the basis of an immersive exhibition in Portugal.
Interviewing and photographing the Seed-Keepers however did not come without its challenges. “The main one,” she laughs, “was that I was a one-woman band! Time was incredibly tight, and there were many women I wanted to feature, whilst also doing everything myself: setting up, video interviews, establishing shots and cutaways, shooting portraits and other stills, recording sound… and carrying all my kit from one place to another. The geography and the weather were also big factors. When the tide was too high, we took boats, but often it was a case of wading and hiking for hours to meet everyone I wanted to.”
“But when you go to a place like this, and you have such a great story to tell, you want to make the most of it,” she continues. “It's a constant commitment, but one that’s always rewarding. It’s a privilege to be allowed to enter this universe, to reach such an ancestral and remote culture. As a story hunter this is the kind of timeless story I believe can make a difference.
Aiding Vanessa on this project was her choice of camera and lens, the Sony Alpha 7C and FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS. “As a one-woman band, I was very fortunate to have that combination,” she explains, “because it’s so portable, while offering a lot of flexibility and quality in both stills and video. That lightness really matters when you are carrying everything on your own back for weeks at a time! And the lens can achieve every type of framing that I want: portraits, wide shots or even a subject on the other side of the rice fields (bolama). And the f/4 aperture gives fantastic brightness, which is very important for me because I like to work with natural light alone.”
Despite the challenges, Vanessa didn’t neglect her trademark approach of working slowly and naturally, taking time to gain the trust of her subjects and make sure their voices were properly heard. “My point of view is that, whether it’s filmmaking or photography or both, you can’t just hit and run,” she explains. “I really like to engage and create a connection with people, and that takes time.”
“I always ask my intervenients what's important for them,” she continues, “and what they want me to convey. In many ways, it’s like ‘bottom-up’ news: you start with those community voices and in a respectful way it becomes a collaboration. It's not for me, as a foreigner, to say what has news value. But instead to give the narrative back to the people. How can I represent them? What are their concerns? And what part of their story hasn’t been told before?”
Vanessa feels that the portraits taken of these women have a special significance. “For me” she explains, “photography has a power that video or audio-visual communication does not have. I’m not saying that one is better than the other, but photos have the effect of freezing time in the way that video does not, and this can take the viewer to different places in their imagination. The eye is drawn to details and lingers, unlocking some special connection, a memory or some idea that was previously unknown. While video gives us almost everything – the motion, the language, and the sound – we can often find something much more powerful in their absence.”
With the story captured, what effect does Venessa think it can have? “I think this kind of agroecology story can be a brilliant example to the wider world, as well as giving something back to the Seed-Keepers themselves,” she concludes.