Newsweek photographer Jonathan Torgovnik has photographed 30 Rwandan women raped during the genocide of the mid-Nineties. John McDermott finds out how the experience has changed Jonathan’s life, and helped to improve the lot of the women and their children.
The tradition of the concerned photographer is as old as the medium of photography itself. Jonathan Torgovnik is the latest in a long line of documentary photographers who have used their work to inspire social change and improve people’s lives. Early practitioners like Matthew Brady and Jacob Riis used the camera to reveal the reality of war and terrible living conditions among immigrants in late 19th century New York City. Mid-20th century artists Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and W. Eugene Smith, and distinguished contemporary practitioners such as Don McCullin, Bruce Davidson, Eugene Richards and Sebastião Salgado, have followed in their footsteps, using the power of the still image to expose the evils of war, poverty, drug addiction and racism, and the dangers of environmental neglect.
In 1994, extremist militias of Rwanda’s Hutu majority murdered more than 800,000 other Rwandans, mostly members of the minority Tutsi tribe. Thousands of women were raped and it was their stories that moved Jonathan to act. He decided to use his photography to increase awareness of their suffering and to raise funds for the education of a generation of children stigmatised by the circumstances of their birth. The result is an acclaimed series of portraits and interviews, ‘Intended Consequences: Mothers of Genocide, Children of Rape’, and the creation of Foundation Rwanda.
Jonathan began shooting pictures as a combat photographer in the Israeli army, an experience that convinced him his future was in photojournalism. In 1992, having completed his compulsory service, the young veteran, carrying an already-impressive portfolio heavy with images shot during conflict in Lebanon and the West Bank, headed to New York to pursue a photography degree at the city’s prestigious School of Visual Arts. After graduating with honours, he was invited to the Eddie Adams Workshop, where every year America’s 100 most promising young photojournalists get to work closely with leading picture editors and photographers.
At the end of the workshop Jonathan won a $2,000 cash prize from Kodak, money that he would use to help fulfill a dream and launch his freelance career. An earlier backpacking trip through Asia had left him fascinated by India’s motion picture industry and he wanted to return and document it. The project took several years to complete but the result was the acclaimed essay ‘Bollywood Dreams’ which was published in magazines worldwide, won multiple awards and was eventually released as a book by Phaidon in 2003. Jonathan’s career was now beginning to take off, and in 2005 he was rewarded with a contract at Newsweek.
In February 2006 Jonathan was working for the magazine in east Africa on a story about the 25th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic. During one interview in Rwanda with a genocide survivor named Margaret Mukacyaka, who had been brutally and repeatedly raped, and as a result had contracted HIV, he learned that she had had a child as a consequence of one of these rapes. “It was really the most horrific interview I had ever sat through in my life…the level of sexual violence and brutality she endured, how she was held captive and her family killed, is unimaginable, indescribable,” he recalls. “I came out of this interview really thinking about the whole idea of the children born from rape during the genocide and wanting to investigate more, to find out how many of these children there are and what problems they face. I learned that there are an estimated 20,000 of these kids in Rwanda.”
Self-assigned projects have always been important to Jonathan and he felt he needed to go back to Rwanda on his own to chronicle the stories of the women, photograph them with their children and, more importantly, hear how they deal with the challenges they face. “It’s really about the consequences of genocide as manifested in the stories of these women because they went through the most horrific thing any human being can experience, short of being killed,” he says. “They were mostly young girls at the time. They witnessed their families being killed in front of them. Then they were brutally raped. All the women I talked to were raped several times. It was never a single event.”
These women now live with the consequences, including children born from rape, AIDS − 60% of the rape victims are HIV-positive − and other sexually-transmitted diseases they continue to deal with to this day. There is also, of course, the psychological trauma. They have complicated relationships with their children and are frequently ostracised by their own families due to the stigma attached to rape and AIDS.
Jonathan made a promise to all the mothers that their stories would not be published in Rwanda. While they wanted the world to know what happened to them, they were keen to shield their children from the circumstances of their birth. He conducted the interviews away from the children, who were told that their mothers were being photographed because they were genocide survivors. “But people still talk,” he says. “They can see a single mother with a child of a certain age that might have mixed Tutsi and Hutu features, and they just know.”
So far he has interviewed and photographed 30 women. He is hoping to ultimately tell the stories of at least 20 more. “Not to sound overly idealistic,” he says, “but no one did anything about this when it was happening and no one is helping them now. Perhaps through creating awareness it will generate some kind of help for them in the future.”
It’s not surprising that Jonathan should be so keenly sensitive to the plight of the victims of genocide. As a child growing up in Israel, the subject of the Holocaust was never far away. His grandfather was murdered by the Nazis, and his father, who survived, was adopted in Israel after the war. “In the process of working on this project I felt so many parallels between the collective consciousness of the Rwandan people and the Jewish people who had gone through the Holocaust. The trauma of genocide is not something you can erase. It’s so big that it haunts you your whole life. When you’re in Rwanda it seems like you can’t have a conversation about anything without the genocide coming into it. It’s the same thing I observed growing up among survivors of the Holocaust.”
During the course of interviewing the women, it became clear to Jonathan that their outlook was bleak. They have struggled economically and as many are HIV-positive they worry about surviving long enough to take care of their children. He quickly discovered that any sense of hope came from the possibility that their children might receive an education. “That’s when I started to get the idea to try to help them myself, to start a foundation that would pay for the secondary education of these kids who are all now approaching high school age,” he says. “In Rwanda primary school is free, but high school isn’t, with fees, books and supplies typically costing $200 to $300 a year, which is a lot there.”
The reaction to the first publication of the story was overwhelming. German weekly magazine, Stern, ran a 12-page portfolio, plus another page at the back of the magazine explaining how to donate money. Stern’s readers responded by contributing more than €100,000. “That was a signal to us that people are interested in reading about this and are interested in giving,” he says. “It’s a misconception to think that people don’t want to hear stories like this anymore. I think sometimes magazines themselves simply aren’t brave enough to publish them. But when they do, they see that their readers react positively. I also think it helped that I shot the story in more of a portrait style and so the pictures are probably easier to look at.”
As the story continued to be published around Europe the donations accumulated. “Aside from reaching millions of people with the story it became clear that we were raising enough seed money to start something serious. It was not just a few thousand dollars we could use to help five or six children. We could see the possibility of sustaining a lot of kids over the next six years while they complete their formal education.” And so Foundation Rwanda was born.
Most of the children are now approaching high school age and the first phase of assistance has recently begun. Partnering local NGOs, Foundation Rwanda is providing funds for the school expenses of the first group of 150 children, with aid to be given to additional groups as they are identified and additional funds are raised. Foundation co-founder Jules Shell, meanwhile is overseeing the Foundation's day-today activities while Jonathan continues his work as a photojournalist. "It's still a grass roots effort and we are still just a team of two, but working to become something bigger. And I'm still a working photographer,” he explains, "but most of my free time now I devote to this.”
On the organisation's fund-raising agenda in the coming year is a series of traveling exhibitions in the United States and Europe. One piece of good news is a just-concluded agreement with the Aperture Foundation to publish the project in book form in the spring of 2009. Jonathan believes the book is especially important because, as he puts it, "while a magazine story can be powerful, a book can give a bigger voice to these women, especially in terms of the text, because the story can be told in a much broader way." An exhibition is also being planned in conjunction with the Rwandan Mission to the United Nations, possibly for the visitors lobby of the UN headquarters, in April 2009, the 15th anniversary of the genocide.
The project received a major boost recently when Jonathan’s photography in Rwanda was recognised in two prestigious competitions. At Visa pour l’Image in September 2007 Jonathan was one of three photojournalists chosen to receive a $20,000 Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography. The grant also provides support from the agency’s editors and syndication of the project to the agency’s worldwide clientele. Two months later Jonathan’s portrait of Joseline Ingabire, embracing the child she bore (see main image on page 1), won Britain’s National Portrait Gallery Photographic Portrait Prize. The picture was chosen from more than 6,500 images entered in the competiton by more than 2,700 photographers. This honor brought with it a personal prize of £12,000, a portion of which Jonathan will donate to
Foundation Rwanda. “Up to this point I’ve funded the project with tens of thousands of dollars out of my own pocket. So I’m happy to get some support to help cover what I’ve done already and to help sustain me as a photographer so I can continue the project. And the affirmation that comes through awards like this is also very important to me.”
The Rwanda project has nevertheless taken an emotional toll on the photographer. “Sometimes,” he confides, “when I sit there, face-to-face with a woman who tells me in such a candid, personal way all these things that were done to her, it makes me feel ashamed of being a man.” He recalls one particularly difficult interview that lasted two hours. “When it was over I could not move. I was emotionally drained, shocked and angry. Normally I do the interview first and then the pictures. I had to ask her if I could come back the next day, because I just was not physically able to do anything. If this had been an assignment I would have had to pull myself together and do the job. But with a personal project you can afford to be loyal to your feelings and just let it affect you”. Jonathan says he would even sometimes have nightmares about people coming to kill him and that he couldn’t attempt more than one interview a day, sometimes needing a couple of days to recover emotionally before doing the next one.
“To be honest,” he admits, “it’s affected me a lot. It’s changed my life and the way I do things and look at things. It became a mission for me. It’s important for me to tell these stories. I feel it’s an obligation because these women have no voice, no power. I need to try and give them as much of a voice as I can. They represent a lot of other women throughout the world who have suffered sexual violence in other conflicts. It’s happened before, in Cambodia, in Bosnia and it’s happening again now in Darfur.”
When asked if the reaction to the ‘Intended Consequences’ project makes him feel proud of being a photographer, Jonathan quickly demurs: “I hate to give compliments to myself or say that I’m doing good things. Winning awards is nice and it certainly raises my profile as a photographer and that helps. But I can’t judge. It’s for other people to look at what I’m doing and decide if my work has merit or is in some way important. What I am definitely proud of, more than anything, are the results that my photography has achieved in creating awareness of this problem. And if we can also create a solution that will help these kids to get an education I will definitely be most proud of that.”
Jonathan Torgovnik’s equipment:
EOS-1Ds Mark II
EF24mm f/1.4L USM
EF35mm f/1.4L USM
EF85mm f/1.2L USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM
Hasselblad 503CW camera
Hasselblad 80mm lens
Hasselblad 60mm lens
Biography: Jonathan Torgovnik
He is a contract photographer for Newsweek magazine and is on the faculty of the International Center for Photography School in New York. His photographs have been published in publications such as Stern, Paris Match and Geo, and are included in the permanent collections of several museums.