Shannon Jensen is a documentary photographer interested in creative approaches to contemporary social issues. Jensen graduated in 2007 from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School with a BS in economics. She developed an interest in journalism while working as a photographer and columnist for the university’s daily newspaper. Jensen had previously traveled to East Africa for academic research and chose to return to the region as a photographer in 2008, where she remained through 2010. Jensen is a featured contributor with Reportage by Getty Images, and continues to cover stories in sub-Saharan Africa.
Her work has been used by publications and clients such as 6Mois, GEO, Le Monde, Médecins Sans Frontières, Monocle, National Geographic, the New York Times, Newsweek, Oxfam, Saturday Telegraph Magazine, Stern, and Vanity Fair (Italy).
Jensen won the Amnesty International Media Award for photojournalism and was honored by Pictures of the Year International and the Days Japan International Photojournalism Award (2013) for her series on the shoes of Sudanese refugees. She has also received recognition from the Magenta Foundation, the National Press Photographers Association, and PDN. Jensen was selected for American Photography’s annual award (2012 and 2013) and featured on Reportage by Getty Images’ Emerging Talent roster (2011 to 2013). In 2009, she attended the Eddie Adams Workshop XXII.
One month before South Sudan seceded from Sudan in June 2011, conflict reignited north of South Sudan’s border between the Sudanese government and the insurgent Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-N). The SPLM/A-N had been an integral part of the movement that led to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, ending 22 years of civil war and paving the way for South Sudan’s independence. The agreement failed to meet the aspirations of Sudanese living in South Kordofan and Blue Nile who had supported the SPLM/A-N but not received the autonomy they desired. With the outbreak of new fighting in 2011, more than 200,000 civilians were driven from their homes and sought safety as refugees in South Sudan.
In June 2012, I traveled to the Blue Nile refugee camps in northeast South Sudan, where there was a dire water shortage and little media coverage. My arrival coincided with an influx of 30,000 new refugees. Many had never left the vicinity of their villages before shelling, aerial bombardments, and soldiers drove them away the previous September. For months, families traveled back and forth from the forest to the mountains, rarely spending more than a week in one place, until they finally made the long trek to South Sudan’s northern border. With them, they carried stories of grandparents left behind and brothers who never returned from fetching water; days in hiding and nights of walking; treasured possessions lost and herds of livestock stolen.
The upheaval was new for these refugees, but hardly a novel phenomenon in the region. In photographing their arrival in South Sudan, I struggled with how to represent their journey in a way that was different from the thousands of existing refugee images.
And then I noticed the shoes. The refugees were wearing an incredible array of worn-down, misshapen, patched-together shoes. Each pair provided a silent testimony to the arduous journey. Each detail revealed the persistence and ingenuity of their owners and the diversity of the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children brought together by tragic circumstance.
With this project, my aim was not to solicit sadness or pity, but to honor the resilience, determination, and perseverance of the people arriving at the camps, and spark interest in the situation that forced them to flee their homes.
—Shannon Jensen, January 2014