From the photographer: How do you photograph child soldiers?

- Karel Prinsloo

A few weeks ago, I left early in the morning from Juba to take a small plane to Yambio, South Sudan, where I had been asked to photograph the release of 300 child soldiers from an armed group.

Along with other members of the international media, I was able to spend some time watching the children as they arrived. They were lined up, and given a final check by UNICEF to make sure they were all there.

UNICEF worker, Matthew Dechristofano, speaks to child soldiers waiting to be demobilised.

I have photographed child soldiers ,many times in actual battle. I remember once, in Bunia in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was standing in a marketplace, surrounded by corpses. A child called Chippy, about 10 years-old and wearing pyjamas, was holding an AK47, about to shoot a woman*.

This has been my experience: child soldiers in the field, with guns, when they are dangerous. This trip to to South Sudan was the first time I was able to witness their demobilisation. When I saw them lined up, with only wooden guns, I saw them for what they are — just kids, shy, giggly and unsure.

It could have been my son standing there.

Child soldiers stand waiting for demobilisation. Of the 300 children present, 87 were girls.

Unfortunately the intimacy of this initial meeting didn’t last as other delegations arrived — from the UN, the South Sudanese government, and local NGO’s — making the moment more difficult to capture.

The children were taken in small groups to be given counselling by UNICEF staff members. Once this was completed, the military took over, and the children had to go through one final parade.

Child soldiers undertake one final parade as part of their demobilisation process.

There was one child I distinctly remember, who was around eight years-old, who became the centrepiece of the event and led the parades. One of the South Sudanese soldiers gave him a toy gun, and then a wooden gun.

After the final manoeuvres and speeches, there was a symbolic moment where each child took off their uniform, placed their gun down in front of them, and once again became a civilian.

Child soldiers place down their weapons during the demobilisation.

By this stage in the day so many people had arrived to witness the event, that we were unable to see any of the children when they were reunited with their parents. So instead, I took photos of the children being marched away, leaving the joyful reunification to the imagination.

Our day was also shortened by the security curfew that comes into force at 8pm, and the challenges of landing our tiny plane back at Juba airport . It was a long journey for very little shooting time — in total only around three hours.

Child soldiers take off their uniform and place it on the ground in front of them during demobilisation.

In an ideal world, I would have spent the night before with the children; seeing where they slept, photographing their last meal as soldiers, and putting their uniforms on for the final time. And of course, I wished I could have got the all-important shot of them reuniting with their parents.

There was also the challenge of making sure that none of the children could be identified — especially difficult in a big group. To hide identities without losing the picture is a challenge for any photographer.

Anonymity was key on this assignment

To work around this, I shot using a 50mm lens, with an f-stop of 1.4 to blur the background so as to avoid accidentally capturing any faces. I also focussed on hands, feet, the guns that children were holding, and photographed from behind where possible.

As photographers, we can always do better. But considering the limitations of the shoot — limited time, strict need for anonymity, and the scale of the event — I’m pleased with the photos.

And for UNICEF this is just the beginning of a release programme that will hopefully see 400 more children released by armed groups in the coming weeks.

* The woman escaped unharmed.

Karel Prinsloo is an award-winning African photographer. He was born in Namibia, and has over 20 years’ experience working in Africa as a photographer. Based in Nairobi for nearly a decade for the Associated Press as their East Africa Chief Photographer and Picture Editor, he has extensive knowledge of Eastern and Southern Africa as well as the Middle East.