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Uganda atrocity survivor: 'This is my picture'

Photographers and journalists are often criticized for flying in to a distant, foreign environment and telling a story in a way that makes people appear exotic, rather than empathizing with them. 'My name is Filda Adoch', a documentary project by the Italian photographer Martina Bacigalupo, is an example of a powerful, compassionate alternative.

President Barack Obama recently ordered up to 100 U.S. military trainers into central Africa to help combat the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a band of rebels behind a campaign of murder, rape and kidnapping that has plagued northern Uganda for 20 years. Ugandan government troops have also been accused of committing human rights abuses during the conflict.

Filda Adoch is one of those most affected by the violence from both sides. The 53 year old Ugandan has suffered the loss of a son, two husbands, and her own leg which was amputated after she stepped on a landmine. Through it all, she has displayed extraordinary spirit and endurance, continuing to take care of her five children, two godsons, ten grandchildren, her mother and a brother. 

Martina Bacigalupo / Agence VU via Aurora Photos

"Here I am carrying the firewood home but it looks as if the firewood on my head is something like wings that make me fly in the sky."
Filda Adoch pictured in Along Village, Gulu District, Uganda, in May 2010.

Martina Bacigalupo spoke with msnbc.com at the Visa pour l'image photojournalism festival in Perpignan, France, where her work was exhibited in September. "The project is an encounter between me and Filda," she explained, "and between our two worlds. I spent three weeks with Filda, staying in her village. The simple idea I had was to collaborate with her."

"When you first arrive in a place everything is new and amazing. People are extraordinary. You tend to project yourself on to things -- your ideas, your culture -- and exaggerate things. It becomes about you, it's not about the people who are your subjects."

"I tried to get beyond that. I wanted to say 'I exist, with my background, my culture, my ideas, my experience of this place. Let me put this together in my photography. Let me put it in front of you - Filda - give it to you, and then you give something back to me.’"

"Each time I took pictures, the following day I would take them to Filda. She was involved in the editing -- sometimes she would look at a picture and say 'no, this is not me'. The images are my choice, but I listened to her. There's a picture with the cow and the chicken, for example. She really wanted this picture to be included.

Martina Bacigalupo / Agence VU via Aurora Photos

"This is a very true picture because everybody is in it, even the chicken. It's very clear."
Filda Adoch with some of her family in Along Village, Gulu District, Uganda, in January 2011.

As we watched people crowd around the exhibit in France, peering intently at Adoch's words beneath the pictures, I asked Bacigalupo how she thought Adoch would react to the scene. "She will laugh when she sees pictures of this! She'll see a bunch of white people looking at her life."

"But I remember our first meeting. 'Go and tell my story,' she said to me. If people looking at the pictures feel a connection with Filda, that is success to me."

And how did the photographer herself feel to see the work exhibited?

"It was only when I looked at the pictures on the wall myself that I realized there are not many pictures where you notice that Filda's leg is missing. She doesn't cry about her lost leg, she doesn't show it. I was conscious that she was so proud of her body, her strength. She feels strong, she feels beautiful, and it is her beauty that comes across."

See more images in the slideshow: One woman's story of surviving 20 years of conflict in Uganda.

Photographer Martina Bacigalupo is based in Burundi, in the Great Lakes region of Africa. She produced the project with a grant she received as the winner of the Canon Female Photojournalist Award.