Valentina Sinis has seen the world, for what it’s worth. The 45-year-old documentary photographer has travelled through over 35 nations, with unique stops to call ‘home’ along the way.
The Italian born photographer spent years living in China; she learned the language, married a local man, taught at the university, and started a cake delivery company that still runs today.
She’s a celebrated photojournalist with credits across the globe. In 2017, one of her photograph’s was selected in Time Magazine’s ‘Top 100 Photos’ of the year. What’s remarkable, she had only started taking photos professionally that very year.
But Valentina will tell you, she had an early start.
“(When) I was a child, I remember I had a film camera since I was six-years-old in my hands.” She says.
Having travelled the world over, and living comfortably in China, Valentina decided to take a new direction, finding people’s stories that would otherwise go unnoticed.
“The thing that made me happier is when my story was published, I can give back to the people who open their life to me.” She says.
Her travels recently took her to Iraq, tracking a story on the millennials of Mosul, when her host family suddenly became enthralled by a television news report.
“I asked my fixer at the time what was happening, he told me this woman arrived to the hospital with 95 percent of her body burned, they told it was suicide, and three kids died in the fire,” she reveals. “I told him, ‘but why do they think it was suicide?’ I mean is that common people think that women would (commit) suicide in this horrible way with the kids?”
“He told me it’s very common,” she repeated. “I started to investigate more, and right away, I think it was not even two days after, he took me to the hospital in Sulaymaniyah, the burn hospital.”
There, Valentina witnessed a scene of despair going otherwise unreported outside the Middle East. Women choosing to end their lives by setting themselves on fire.
“This day at the hospital, there was this young girl she was 17-years-old, most of her body was burned, it was around 90 percent, she had arrived just the day before,” she says.
Valentina recalls the tense discussions that followed; the teen’s father—accompanied by his two wives—accepts Valentina’s request to tell the teen’s story.
“She mutilate(d) herself because she didn’t pass the exam at high school, and so her dream to study at university, probably gain a little freedom and independence from what I can understand was a very traditional family, was gone.” Valentina says.
Captured in a now award-winning photograph, the teen is seen wrapped in bandages up to her chest, and in noticeable pain.
“The day after I had to leave Kurdistan because it was too much for me to cope with,” she says. “But after thinking a lot about it I decided that this was really a story I wanted to work with and it was very important to highlight the situation of the women.”
Friend and BBC Persian journalist Soran Qurbani, knew from the beginning, Valentina was the right one to tell this story.
“She can capture moments that not everyone can see and feel.” He says. “Her photography is a flow of emotion… She’s compassionate and full of curiosity about life and what’s unfolding around her.”
Valentina has returned multiple times as she works on a feature documentary, checking in on the same women she first met in the hospital burn ward as they live their lives in the aftermath of their attempt.
One of those women, Daroon, has seen her situation get even worse. “In most of the cases they have to go back to the family, but the husband doesn’t want them anymore, they definitely don’t want the husband anymore too.” She says. This was not Daroon’s fate, as she returned back with the same family she was trying to escape.
“When I visited in December, she was much happier, but her husband and the family of the husband they don’t like her to see the doctor that much… in a kind of way, life is better, but she’s in incredible pain because, no doctor.” She says. “It’s not just about physical scars, but their internal scars too.”
“I can go on and on saying these stories, they are different, but they are the same.” She says.
Valentina continues her work on a feature documentary and hopes to bring more attention to the plight of oppressed women throughout the region.