written by Ellyn Kail

It has a name, says Danish photographer Marie Hald. The girls who suffer from anorexia call it “Ana,” and “Ana” is a very real presence in their lives, one that speaks to them, manipulates them, and puts their lives in jeopardy. The Girls of Malawa tells the story of young women battling eating disorders, documenting life in a six-week treatment program in a little Polish village.

Hald discovered the therapeutic facility, “a little yellow house” called Drzewo Zycia (or Tree of Life), by way of a fixer while visiting Poland. She was granted permission to visit by the leader of the home and was astonished to find how readily she was accepted into the lives of her protagonists. She lived with them, ate the required six meals with them, and learned from them. Throughout the days, she heard them cry, and she heard them sing. They attended therapy sessions, and at night, when the girls were sent upstairs for bath time and lights out, Hald went with them.

Although many of the therapists and teachers at the facility weren’t able to speak much English, the photographer formed close bonds with the girls themselves, who were expressive, kindhearted, and candid. They confided in her, and they mourned with her. They trusted her to take their pictures as a warning to others to avoid “taking their course,” as a plea for awareness and understanding, and as a way of showing those struggling with the illness that they are not alone.

“Eating disorders,” explains Hald, “are not only about being thin.” They come from a yearning for control and a wish to impose order in a world that so often seems chaotic and confusing. The disorder permeates and wreaks havoc on every facet of daily life. The photographer herself could in some ways identify with that dangerous striving for something unattainable; “I could see my younger self so much in them,” she admits.

“It’s a rocky road to recovery,” confesses Hald, and it’s still unclear what lies ahead for the “girls of Malawa.” The “voice” of “Ana” is persistent, and overcoming it requires constant courage and diligence. The photographer likens it to a brutal war, only it’s one fought internally. Some suffering from the illness go on to lead happy, healthy lives; others die, their hearts failing due to lack of food.

No matter what happens, the photographer understands the importance of her images. The subject is a painful, often uncomfortable one, but it’s one that needs to recognized. More than anything, Hald carries with her a profound pride in the girls with whom she collaborated, the individuals who allowed her to witness them at their most vulnerable. Never once did she feel like a photographer; she was simply a human being who cared about the wellbeing of her fellows.

The girls from Malawa