"For Sarah - The African Princess", Photo Story about Africa by Dagmar van Weeghel

Dagmar van Weeghel - a 1998 graduate from The Dutch Film & TV Academy where she studied Film & Photography- has spent many years storytelling through film, mostly in Africa. In 2002 Dagmar initiated an NGO, Nature for Kids. For this NGO she has produced & directed a series of nature conservation children’s films for the African audience.  In 2015 Dagmar went on to initiate 'Pomme Photography'. Using natural lighting, Dagmar creates fine art children’s portraits that are further enriched in digital post-production. Inspired by the soft light & style of the classic Dutch painters, she combines the old with the new, resulting in unique commissioned portraits. Children are mostly portrayed in a sober manner - sometimes fragile or strong with a hint of nostalgia.

Photography was always there, but not my main tool for storytelling. After 14 years of experiencing Africa and running the NGO I wanted to tell my own stories through photography as well. Hence I conceptualized and created my first photo series 'For Sarah’ which is based on some of my experiences in Africa. ‘ For Sarah – The African Princess – ‘ is a story about Africa, stolen childhoods and transformations. It is a two part portrait series inspired by Sarah Forbes Bonetta.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta, an African princess of the Egbado clan of the Yoruba people, is best known as the goddaughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. Bonetta was born in 1843 in what is now southwest Nigeria. Her parents' names are unknown as are the names of her siblings who were all killed in the 1847 slave raid that made Bonetta a captive.   Bonetta’s village of Okeadan was attacked by King Gezo of Dahomey, the most notorious slave trading monarch in West Africa in the early 19th century.  Intent on capturing slaves and killing those not taken, Gezo’s men seized the four year old girl.  For reasons that are unclear, the girl was not killed and remained at Gezo’s Court until 1849 when British Commander Frederick Forbes’s landed the HMS Bonetta boat in Dahomey to persuade Gezo to give up slave raiding and trading.

Forbes noticed the young girl and bargained for her life.  He persuaded King Gezo to “give” her to Queen Victoria, saying “She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.” The girl remained with Forbes in West Africa for the next year where she was baptized and given the name Sarah Forbes Bonetta.  Forbes wrote that “She is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and [has] great talent for music… She is far in advance of any white child of her age in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection…”     Sarah was taken to Great Britain and met Queen Victoria on November 9th, 1850 at Windsor Castle.  The Queen was impressed by her intellect and entrusted her care to the Schoen family in Palm Cottage, Gillingham. When Forbes died early in 1851, The Queen declared Sarah her goddaughter and paid her tutorial expenses.  Young Sarah became a regular visitor to Windsor Castle.  (text: www.blackpast.org)

Sarah’s traumatic but remarkable story portrays to me the story of many African children. I have met numerous orphaned children during my travels in Africa. Not only orphaned because of violence but also because of health issues. These children need to survive without parental love, care, protection, basic resources, and money. They live in a very tough world and girls are especially vulnerable. But if given a chance, these children have full on potential and capabilities to take on life & the world. Just like Sarah did. It’s all about being given, and about grabbing, opportunities, plus bravery, strength and determination. Sarah portrays all this to me. There are other ‘ Sarah’ like figures these days who will make it out there through adoption and through other avenues. But there are many ‘Sarahs’ waiting for that one chance. The ‘ For Sarah’ series is a two part series. The first part is my interpretation of Sarah Forbes Bonetta herself. After studying her past & photos I wanted to create this image of her of when she was photographed in Victorian clothes while living & being sort of adopted by Queen Victoria in Great Britain. She poses uncomfortably and yet still appears brave and determined.  When she is dressed with African props, she possesses an even greater strength and becomes The African Princess that she was.

For the second part of the series, I went back to Africa and shot a follow up portrait series of the real ‘Sarah’ of this era. I photographed 8 girls in an orphanage. These girls have traumatic pasts and stories, and little chance of being adopted at the ages of 8 and up. By sharing their story, their dreams & aspirations, I hope someone will notice them and their hope for a chance in life becomes a reality.

All photos by Dagmar van Weeghel