What was your motivation behind capturing today's Rwandan youth?
I knew that 2014 would be the 20 year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide when nearly 1 million Tutsis were savagely butchered. My thought was what would be a more engaging story? Would it be about the future through the eyes of the youth of Rwanda born during the genocide era … I was curious to learn what they knew about the genocide, how their families coped- not just the survivor’s kids, but also those who suffered the stigma of having a relative in jail for the crimes committed, their sense of isolation.
I wanted to hear the youth’s views of what were the causes of the genocide, lessons learned, and most importantly, what their vision of their country is now, two decades after the war has ended, how important the ideals of reconciliation and forgiveness are in their mind set, what peace means to them, and how it can be achieved… What their dreams are and how they are pursuing them. I wanted an honest portrayal of how the youth today ‘thinks’ compared to the youth during the genocide who were the reputed death warriors.
Also, I thought for International Alert, (the peace building NGO that commissioned this work), this focus would be an ideal vehicle to platform the work that they have implemented, with their peace clubs both in schools and in the communities. My instinct was that through the peace clubs I would be able to get a variety of testimonies of how the teachings of eliminating traditional labels of tribal rivalries, reconciliation, forgiveness, have helped lives- that I would have the fodder to strengthen Alert’s messages to the wider world with hard evidence of what the clubs achieved, in contrast to kids who did not have the opportunity to be on a club … as it is essential to present an objective assessment and views that are inclusive of all the youth of Rwanda.
How did you reach out to these youth? Please tell us about your experience in executing this project?
It was a joyful and sometimes daunting experience to photograph the youth- especially since I did not want them to ‘parrot’ back propaganda language espoused to be non-controversial and also to appeal to what a Western person wants to hear, as well as what they might think would be ‘politically correct’ … that was the challenging part … to peel back layers where the inner truth would rise up. I have vast experience photographing young people, especially in complex environments whether poverty and AIDS ridden or post conflict where some are visibly traumatised and find it difficult to be open.
I work VERY small– what I mean is that there is usually only me along with my ‘fixer’, translator which creates a much more relaxed environment. When there is a cast of thousands, not only kids, most people become more timid and not as forthcoming with their intimate thoughts. I always tell my subjects that I am there to ‘listen’, I never bring my camera out till a rapport is developed through small talk chatter, body language. I tell everyone that if at anytime they are uncomfortable with responding to questions, or my camera … I will stop. Once the warm up is completed, and they feel they can ‘trust’ me … the rest gets easy. I joke when it is appropriate and sometimes hug and cry with them.
The thing that struck me the most about the youth was their clarity of mind of who they were, what dreams they want to pursue, and, the thought that they need to work hard to be successful in their aspirations. I was impressed in how they responded to sensitive probing questions, their collective view that they, the youth of Rwanda, the future leaders must ensure there is never another genocide, that they must take the responsibility of building peace a priority- and in doing so, learn to forgive and fuel their energy into building a united and prosperous country.
They want to eliminate poverty and bury old tribal hatreds. Their thought is that the only way for their country to go forward is by staying united, and it will be the role of the youth to ensure that happens. They universally said they wanted their legacy in the history books to be as ‘Peace Brokers’. I was very impressed with my final question drawing the session to a close … ‘What does peace mean to you’ … I got some very profound responses. Mostly I found the youth to have an aura of dignity no matter what their circumstances are. I was very impressed with their intelligence, their sense of humanity. I was humbled daily by who I met and learning from them how they have managed their worlds given the world they were born into.
What key challenges did you face towards the accomplishment of this project?
The main challenge was having ample time to create emotive imagery that captured the soul of the subjects. I was meeting most of the students in their schools, which did not provide an atmosphere for ‘artistry’ … I had wanted to create an essay about the subject that combined both more formalized portrait along with reportage imagery- a slice of their every day life. I never had the time to do that as I was on the road every day traveling three hours to destinations all over Rwanda … I interviewed and photographed nearly 100 young citizens in four weeks!!! YIKES!!! Not quite the time I would have preferred ala W. Eugene Smith or Salgado. My brand of photography is photo documentary, which requires ‘time’ … I am not a wham/bam shooter. I want my stories to evolve and have depth … which is a bit difficult for this assignment.
Can you share with us any interesting anecdotes that could not be captured through the lens?
We traveled daily on a combination of newly created road and kidney splitting mud riddled goat’s tracks. For example, at times I had to get out of the vehicle and direct the driver to drive over two logs that were a ‘bridge’, one slight miss-turning of the wheel and … agh!
One of the greatest pleasures was working and ‘playing’ with the Rwandan team. Since I have worked there before, I know the team very well - they are my ‘sisters’ and brother’s … I adore spending time there, we don’t just work hard (my reputation is that I exhaust everyone with my high-octane energy), but we also have fun and laughs… they make me feel very karibu (Swahili for welcome). I went to a family wedding, invited by Betty Mutusi- we traveled three hours to get to the reception … spent another three hours waiting for the bride and groom who were held up at their church for 5 hours because the vicar didn’t show till after six and we left before the festivities began!
Oh yes, I had a marriage proposal by a man in one of the villages. When I told him I was a widow, he said he would be happy to make me his bride.
Tell us about your equipment.
I used the Canon digital 5D Mark II- using only two prime lenses- a 35 and a 50 and a camera always set to manual.
I do not use reflectors or any lighting- relying totally on available light. It is my brand of photography to work small- no bells and whistles. In the end, it is always about the idea, and trust engendered with the subjects ... it is not about expensive equipment to flash around. I also feel, when you are creating intimacy, less is more!
What is the main thing you want people to take away from the exhibition?
I think the most important thing people take away from the exhibition is the idea that the youth of Rwanda have a clear vision about the importance of building a united society to achieve peace … and that their vision and unswerving desire for peace is a message not just for this tiny African country that witnessed some of the worst atrocities during the genocide, but more importantly, that their ideas to achieve peace are universal, that civilisation is doomed to extinction unless we live in a world of peace, learn to be tolerant and respect our neighbours and embrace the idea of being humane.
Given the conflict ridden world we live in today- we should heed the words of generation Amahoro- the peace generation...‘War is evil, it destroys lives and brings a nation to its knees creating poverty and loss of hope.’ The only alternative is peace and love. As one of the students said in his response to the question, define peace, and he said, ‘Peace is a world filled with love, not hate.’