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Light and shadows: Skin bleaching in Uganda

Story highlights
  • Skin lightening is a common practice among many women in Uganda
  • Photographer Anne Ackermann visited a popular beauty parlor in the city of Kampala

(CNN) Living in Uganda in 2013, German photographer Anne Ackermann couldn't ignore the sight of light-skinned women with obviously dark feet, elbows and joints.

As someone who regularly documents issues surrounding beauty, identity and womanhood, Ackermann's natural curiosity led her to Mama Lususu.

Mama Lususu, which translates to the "mother of beautiful skin," owns popular beauty parlors across downtown Kampala and is famous for helping women to bleach and lighten their skin tone. She also helps to repair skin damaged by the improper use of bleaching chemicals or even stain removers at home.

Skin lightening, a common practice in Uganda, is something that few women will admit to even though they were willing to be photographed by Ackermann in Lususu's parlor. Some of Ackermann's subjects even tried to tell her they were born with lighter skin.

Photographer Anne Ackermann

"There seems to be a strong desire for browner or fairer skin," Ackermann said. "Yet at the same time, there is shame and secrecy to it."

The ideal skin tone in Uganda appears to be caramel, Ackermann said. One client told her "brown women shine brighter in the dark night." Women are willing to apply harsh chemicals and carcinogens to lighten their skin, which surprised Ackermann because the process is also so harmful.

"I am learning that there seems to be a serious pressure for women to fit into dominant beauty stereotypes in a society based on the belief that the fairer and lighter is associated with beauty and wealth," she said.

Besides photographs for her ongoing series, the experience at Lususu's has also afforded Ackermann with new memories and a unique perspective of Kampala.

"Just hanging out around the tiny wooden cabins in Mama Lususu's parlor in the hustle and bustle of downtown Kampala -- the air heavy with chemicals, watching and chatting to the women that showed up there from all walks of life -- was a great experience after trying to gain access for so long," she said.

Ackermann says her project is far from over, and she wants to keep documenting this process while broadening the scope to include other issues of beauty and identity. She has also started another series on beauty and plastic surgery, which is new to the region.

Ackermann has previously documented body and identity issues. Her 2009 series "Plástica" followed women after plastic surgery in Brazil.

She is now on a quest to find other projects that portray surprising and positive stories in Uganda. And she hopes her images will cause people to reflect on the undertones of identity.

"I think it's all about raising a question rather than finding all the answers," she said. "If I can make people pause their everyday routine for a moment, look at the images, stop and wonder, I think that's a lot."

Anne Ackermann is a German photographer based in Uganda. You can follow her on Instagram and Visura.