Rwanda, 20 years later, in photos and memories
PROOF: Media for Social Justice recently partnered with the University of San Diego to explore the horrifying saga of the Rwandan genocide.
It is widely chronicled that as many as a million people were killed in the central African nation of Rwanda during the short period of approximately 100 days, between April 7th and mid-July 1994. Years of strife between the two prevalent cultural groups—the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis—resulted in the attempted extermination of the Tutsis along with uncooperative Hutus.
The sense of incomprehensibility is surely one reason why photographers are drawn to such a subject: to give some sense of visual reality. Such is the case with those represented in the exhibition at USD ‘Rwanda, 1994 – 2014: Seven Photographers’, where 20 years later, photographers like Gatari, and other witnesses to this tragedy, gathered in the University of San Diego Gallery on April 24th, for the opening of an exhibit that raised thorny questions about our capacity for violence and forgiveness. While the images explore a horrifying chapter in world history, survivors say some of the images offered a glimpse of elusive qualities, such as hope and moral courage.
Renowned photographer Fazal Sheikh’s work focused on the refugee camp at Lumasi, where he chronicles the immediate aftermath of the genocide with harrowing images of young girls. In contrast to Sheikh’s work, which focuses on the victims of the genocide, American photographer Robert Lyons focused on those imprisoned for the killings. These images were also published in 2006 as part of the book Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide.
Alfredo Jaar, acclaimed multimedia artist from New York, expresses the Rwandan genocide with his piece ‘ Six Seconds/ It is Difficult’, which encapsulates the unrepresentable tragedy. He represents a light box with a blurred color photograph of the six seconds in which a girl in a refugee camp receives news that her parents have been killed. Jaar’s second light box on display contains a segment of lines from American writers William Carlos Williams poem:
‘ It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there’
In the context of Jaar’s work for this exhibit, William’s lines express the need to transcend the horrific nature of events, not just through politics, but through a larger vision expressed through poetry, music image, and learning in general.
Another vehicle for regeneration is to focus on the heroic acts of individuals. PROOF featured four images in the exhibit that expose unique and untold stories of courage where individuals risked their lives and acted as ‘upstanders,’ instead of bystanders, to save imperiled friends, neighbors and even strangers. The images featured were from the Rescuers: Picturing Moral Courage exhibit, and were taken by Italian photographer Ricardo Gangle. PROOF’s Executive Director Leora Kahn and Gangle found people like John, a mechanic who concealed several Tutsis in his garage and Christina Kamunani and her three daughters, who welcomed a family of five into their home for months. Testimonies and images were taken of these ordinary heroes who rescued others and endangered their lives in the process during the Rwandan genocide.
This section of the exhibition heightens the awareness of rescuer behavior during periods of genocide or mass violence and helps us better understand the conditions that support compassionate behavior in times of mass communal violence.
The exhibit closed on June 6th and Derrick Cartwright, Director of University Galleries in San Diego, commented that “Rwanda, 1994 – 2014: Seven Photographers was one of the most successful projects ever to be mounted at USD’s Fine Art Galleries, and this simply would not have been the same without the contribution of Gangle and Leora Kahn’s work.”