Often times, we think of portraiture as a separate genre from documentary & photoreportage. The latter tell a story and convey something of the truth about a larger situation, tragedy or setting. The former is focused on the individual and what’s etched onto their faces and eyes, what’s expressed in their solitary gaze.
But portraits and documentary reports are both, fundamentally, social stories. We don’t always need to fall back on the reportage-style of shooting to communicate the complexity of an issue.
This is powerfully illustrated in the work of Jonathan Torgovnik, “Intended Consequences,” a series of environmental portraits made in Rwanda, of women that were brutally raped during the Rwandan genocide and the children they bore from those brutal encounters.
As Torgovnik told us, “When you’re dealing with post-conflict issues—the way that people are affected by something many years after a catastrophe or genocide has occurred—how do you communicate that with a picture? Right now, there’s nothing visibly happening in Rwanda in terms of the war or the conflict. But the people, of course, remain greatly affected by it. So while a documentary photograph of the setting by itself wouldn’t say much, portraiture becomes a powerful way to communicate the continuing consequences of the past.”
Managing editor Alexander Strecker spoke on the phone with Torgovnik recently, to learn more about his work and his belief in the power of portraiture.
LC: What first drew you to your project, “Intended Consequences”?
JT: My initial exposure to Rwanda was when I was shooting an assignment for Newsweek magazine, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of HIV. The writer I was with was very interested in interviewing women that were raped during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and who then contracted HIV from the rape. He wanted to look at the issue of how HIV/AIDS is used, or was used, as a weapon of war. After all, many militia members knew they were HIV-positive and so they raped women in order to infect them, as a kind of long-term punishment.
One woman that we interviewed, named Margaret, described to us the horrors that she went through during the genocide. At the time, she was only 16 years old and her entire family was killed in front of her. She hid under a bed in the house and was later captured by a militia leader and taken as a sex slave for several months. During the day, these guys would go out and kill people; during the night, they would come and rape her. As a result, she contracted HIV—but she also mentioned that she became pregnant and had a baby boy.
Now, I knew that there were hundreds of thousands of women who were raped during the Rwandan genocide, but I realized I had never really seen any story covering this specific issue: the children born out of rape.
At the time, I was living in New York. Back home, even an ocean away, Margaret’s story continued to haunt me. Remembering her words—said in a very gentle and quiet voice—that revealed the terrible, terrible things that happened to her…I decided I had to go back and do something.
( Besides photographs and interviews, Jonathan Torgovnik produced a series of multimedia presentations on this subject. They are powerful, if deeply disturbing, viewing.)
So, I took my own money, boarded a flight and started investigating this issue. I began by talking to some local NGOs, who were supporting women with HIV. From them, I learned that the issue of the children born of rape was such a taboo that no one wanted to talk about it. After all, these women were already struggling with so many levels of trauma and on top of that, they were ostracized by their communities for having had a child of the enemy.
And so slowly, through these NGOs, I began to identify some of these women. I dedicated three years to researching, shooting and putting together the material for the project. Then I spent another two years getting the photographs and the stories out there into the world.
But even then, I didn’t feel that I was finished. Maybe for the first time in my career, I thought I want to do something beyond photography, beyond raising awareness. After all, something that had struck me from the interviews was how at the end of each conversation, I always asked the women how they saw the future for their children and for themselves. And each time, it was amazing to hear them say, “We really want to be able to keep our kids in school—education is the only way that they will be able to recover from this.” It was quite striking because through all of the trauma and the extreme poverty…the first thing they thought about was the education for their children.
So, long story short, I started a foundation that supports the secondary school education of these children, women and their families. It’s called Foundation Rwanda. To date, we’ve supported nearly 800 families, raised over two million dollars and remain involved in getting support for these children for their education.
Now, I’ve been working for twenty years and continue to work. But this has definitely been my most important project—probably the most important that I’ll do in my career.
LC: What logistical complications did you encounter in the process of investigating such a sensitive topic?
JT: The biggest barrier was identifying the women. Simply finding them, in order to reach out and begin the process. As I said, they are very discreet on the issue. Nevertheless, within their communities, even if they don’t share it, people know. In that culture, if you are a single mother with a child at a specific age (and you are a Tutsi woman)—it’s very obvious what happened to you and where this kid came from.
In the whole project, I photographed 40 families. 40 subjects in three years; this wasn’t a fast-paced project. But besides the difficulties of access, there was also the daily emotional burden. Forget being a photographer: as a human being, it’s difficult to sit with someone for two hours and listen as they tell you the unimaginable horrors that they went through, the brutality, physical and mental…This meant it was not a project where I could make one portrait and then make ten more on the same day. I was completely numb after each meeting. And anyways, I tried to spend one full day with each woman, at least.
LC: And how about artistic/aesthetic difficulties?
JT: The challenge there was how to communicate this story photographically. How do you photograph trauma? It’s not an event that’s happening now. I’m trying to capture something that happened a long time ago and the consequences of what happened, which are mostly emotional and internal. That was the biggest challenge I had as a still photographer.
I shot with a Hasselblad, with film. The idea was to photograph them in and around the environment of where they live. They were staged in the sense that I decided the composition within the environment, but then I would just ask them to stand there with their children and it was very organic. I didn’t direct them in terms of their postures or their positions: I just let them be.
Also, I always tried to interview them before I took the pictures. The reason being that after these heavy, emotional interviews, I hoped I’d be able to capture something on the faces of the women that could convey something of what I had heard. I imagined that I might capture, for the viewer, a moment that could transcend the limits of the still picture.
The text of this project—consisting of testimonies taken from the interviews that I conducted—are as important as the images themselves. The experience of the viewer needs to involve both looking at the image and reading the testimonies. You must try to immerse yourself in the stories, through the combination of pictures and words.
LC: Do you believe that portraits can tell a story?
JT: Yes, I really do think that they can tell a story—portraiture is a craft of its own. If I shot five or six rolls of 120mm film, I would say that in 90% of the cases, there was only one picture there. The one frame that really got it.
There are so many subtleties in portraiture—one posture, one angle of the head, one gaze of the eyes and it’s a different picture and a different experience. This is what attracts me to it: the level of intensity in each image. If you look at a contact sheet and see four pictures that were taken one after the other, you’ll see four different pictures.
I shot this project on film, and I found that as I was changing the rolls of film, that’s when my subjects were much more relaxed. Eventually, I discovered that the first two rolls of film were just for warming up. Only from the third roll of film was when I would start getting something.
LC: In the course of conducting interviews and photographing these women and their children, what surprised you the most?
JT: What surprised me, at first, was that because they hadn’t shared their stories with anyone before, there was a real eagerness to talk. Perhaps because I was a foreigner—from outside the community—they felt that I was not judging them. They sensed that I was trying to document their stories and give them a voice and a space to be heard.
Second: every story was more horrific than the next. That was a continuing surprise and a difficult emotional rollercoaster. Every time I started an interview, I didn’t know what was going to come and when it came, it was more shocking than what came before—which up to that point, I thought was the worst I had ever heard.
For example, when I heard a woman say something like, ”Oh I’m lucky, only five men raped me; I know women who were raped by 50 men.” Or when suddenly, someone would go into the graphic details of exactly what someone (or a group) did to them. I just sat and listened.
It was surprising, but so important, to put a face on the statistics of how many were raped and killed. But even more important, was when I would go from one story to the next and to the next, and start to comprehend that these horrors were probably representative of everything that happened during the conflict.
And that’s really what I am trying to do: to expose the public to that. People are desensitized sometimes and I’m trying to shake them up. Whoever sees these images and reads the texts, they will understand.
LC: The genocide in Rwanda has not only been well-documented by groups like Human Rights Watch and the Women’s Media Center, it has also been portrayed in print and film as well. What specific role, then, does your project add to the conversation?
LC: I’m not a generalist in what I do. I like to hone in on one thing and try to raise awareness about that specific topic. In this case, I didn’t see anybody or anything tackling this idea of the children born from rape. So, by doing this work, I did bring about a new awareness of the consequences of genocide and sexual violence.
Alongside that, the most important thing for me was starting the Foundation Rwanda. Besides helping the individuals in the short-term, the foundation also helped transform the story of these children into something that Rwandans could actually, finally talk about.
I think of all this when people are skeptical about the idea that photography can affect change. To the skeptics, all I can say is that I really do think that it can and it does make a difference.
I’ll give you an example: towards the end of the project, I showed it to Stern magazine in Germany. I made sure that they mentioned our efforts to raise money to help with the children’s education. From that story alone—and the public that read the magazine—150,000 euros came in. And then, a week later, the Telegraph ran it and another 70,000 pounds came in.
In other words, if you put something in front of people and they read and react to it, things can happen. Those donations provided the seed money that established Foundation Rwanda, which has helped almost 800 families.
LC: But how can we, as viewers, avoid becoming numb to the narrative of violence in East African countries (or really, violence anywhere)?
JT: You’re right, sometimes people do get a bit numb. It’s unfortunate but maybe it’s just a human way of dealing with the world. And tragically, these kinds of things will happen again (and again); the world will keep on having crises. Nevertheless, I do think there is always a place for trying to do something. We need to keep raising awareness about issues and making a difference where we can.
And yes, the difference is usually on a small scale—but that doesn’t matter. I’m a big believer of a drop in the bucket. Imagine that there were about 20,000 children born out of rape—which means we’ve helped fewer than 5% of them. But still, it’s better than nothing. If you can see how a life, several lives or maybe a few hundred lives are transformed because of your help, I think that’s quite amazing.
—Jonathan Torgovnik interviewed by Alexander Strecker and Elizabeth Temkin
Editors’ Note: To learn more about Foundation Rwanda and find out how you can help, please visit their website.