Death of a photojournalist dedicated to dignity, care and empathy

Nairobi Letter: Sumy Sadurni was a humane capturer of smiles in adversity – and a friend

The last time I saw Sumy Sadurni was on the day of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni's victory parade. We drove towards central Kampala together, but the roads were blocked by soldiers. A team of trapped drivers offered Sumy advice as she manoeuvred the car to the side of the road. We then ran towards noise, only to realise we were directly in front of Museveni's own convoy, and we needed to sprint faster or be caught up in it.

Sumy took photographs of the heavy security presence and Museveni’s apparent supporters, some of whom said they had been paid to attend. But both of us somehow missed Museveni himself. Afterwards, Sumy first worried her editors would be annoyed, then began joking at our chaotic day. We laughed all the way home.

Last week, Sumy died in a car crash in Uganda, the country she had made her home, aged 32.

While you may not recognise Sumy’s name, you have probably seen her work. The strange existence of a wire photojournalist means it could be published at any time by any outlet, and she might not even know it. Her photographs have been on the front page of the New York Times and in the Financial Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian (where she was shortlisted for “agency photographer of the year”), and appeared alongside my articles in The Irish Times.


Behind much of the news consumed globally is an army of freelancers: generally young people who are professionally alone and under pressure, living off little except the care and passion they have for their work.

Marginalised people

Sumy was the best of us. We exchanged advice on everything from getting visas to sharing contacts for the most reliable boda boda riders. We moaned about men becoming creepy during interviews and complained about outlets not paying on time. I knew I could contact her if I had problems with authorities.

Sumy also volunteered her time to train and mentor Ugandan photojournalists. After her death, I saw one tweeting that her support made him realise he could succeed in the industry.

Browsing through Sumy’s photos, it’s noticeable how many people are smiling. She focused on raising the voices of marginalised people, but did so in a way that challenged stereotypical imagery of tragedy and despair. She spoke publicly about the importance of dignity, care and empathy – and all three underlined her work. She photographed victims of acid attacks, feminist sex workers and the members of a boxing club in a slum near her house, where she herself exercised.

Sumy reported from other countries across the world, covering conflicts in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When the pandemic started we made a plan to go to Somalia once it was over: we wanted to see the country as much as to work there.

Panic attacks

Sumy was always supportive. She was one of the first people to read the proposal for my book on the plight of refugees in Libyan detention centres and offered insightful, kind feedback. Her home was full of literature (she had a copy of Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul with her when she died), and she told me she wanted to write a memoir one day, pulling together all her adventures. I found that surprising because she never made her work about herself. I wish I could have read it.

Sumy had anxieties too. I lived in her house for more than two months at the time of the Ugandan elections. She had moved out for security reasons, related to her coverage of the opposition campaign, and I sent her updates on her much-loved cats.

Over the last year, she spoke openly about the panic attacks that affected her for most of her adult life. She became scared to go outside. Medical help saved her, she said, encouraging others to get assistance if they needed it. “No one deserves to be this afraid of life and to be a slave to your thoughts and your mind,” she said.

In November, Sumy posted on Instagram saying she realised she had spent 16 years looking at mirrors and not being happy with what she saw. "How tragic is that? And I'm definitely not the only one . . . Let's not allow our future generations to feel like this," she wrote. "If you want to grow your hair grow it. If you want to shave it, go for it babes. Eat some chocolate, eat some broccoli, wear a crop top or wear old shorts, just you do you and focus on yourself, and screw the rest."

Through her work, her teachings, and her wide-ranging friendships, I know Sumy changed the east African journalism community forever. We will remember her lessons and her guiding principles: centring dignity, empathy and care; smiling often and capturing other’s smiles; supporting others and letting yourself be supported too.