In late 1997, after having completed Another Africa, a book of photographs with text by Chinua Achebe, I was haunted by the thought that my work in Africa still remained unfinished. I reviewed the photographs of Sub-Saharan Africa I had taken over the past eight years and I realized my encounters were incomplete. Something remained for me to confront in Africa. What that was remained an open question. It was only later that I would come to know that the Rwanda genocide had profoundly effected my perception and perspective.
In 1994 I had returned to Seattle to prepare an exhibition of my photographs of Africa. During the last days of the genocide as I worked in my darkroom, I listened—as was my habit—to the BBC. I watched the news; I read the newspapers; I took in as much information as I could on the genocide. It was difficult to look at my work on West Africa while listening to the news from Rwanda. The two experiences, the images from both places, my experiences on site and at a distance did not resonate. As each day passed, I heard more and more reports about the genocide. I became even more confused. Often the media depicted the genocide as “tribal.” Print and visuals focused continually on the horror of the killings without contextualizing anything. This all seemed quite one sided: the lack of history, the simplistic, sensationalist—sometimes even pornographic—appeal to emotions without analysis. With each day as I heard and saw more about the genocide, a feeling grew of impotency. I understood nothing about the conflict—not even the images. I felt that somehow there must be a way to show the horror of genocide without making sensationalistic imagery. I wanted to explore the space between the victims and perpetrators and the outside world…not to simply demonize the perpetrators. I felt that in condemning those responsible for the genocide that we easily made them into the “other” and in so doing escaped the questions required of each of us as individuals. If the “other” were hardly human then it was easy to say we would never do this…that it was unthinkable. But it is not unthinkable, as we have seen many times, in Armenia, in Cambodia, in Germany, in Bosnia, in Darfur: genocide continues to take place often with impunity.
I now know that these days in 1994 profoundly affected my ideas about what was to become eventually Intimate Enemy. Somehow I knew then that I wanted to explore the Rwandan genocide from a perspective different from what I had experienced in Seattle. I not only wanted to construct a context from which to view the actual event. I also wanted to find new ways of seeing and thinking the very idea of genocide. When I wrote, in 1997, the initial project description, I had envisioned it thus: “I intend to present the human face of these people and, in doing so, to bring their stories closer to those of us not directly involved with the genocide….People are simultaneously archetypes and individuals in this project. In this way and within a specific anti-sensationalist context, I believe that ideas surrounding healing, reconciliation and a strong culture of human rights might ultimately emerge.” This remained my starting point, from beginning to end, as I photographed.
The very specific subjective and aesthetic parameters of this project were also evident to me from the start. In particular, I wanted to rethink, rework, expose the genre of the portrait, in particular the black-and-white portrait. I wanted to present human beings in a seamless fashion without attributing specific characteristics or imposing set categories. I saw my portraits as an archive where individuals would be more democratically represented. As I would write in my diary when in Rwanda: “This is the most documentary project I have ever attempted. I am allowing the images little poetic and emotional space; viewers will have little room for escape.” Through a stark black and white portraiture, with a limited depth of field and a background obscure in detail but present nonetheless, I wanted the audience to enter a more intimate space, to ask questions, to experience directly the ambiguous physical resemblances between genocidaire and rescapee. Ideally and idealistically, I believed a common humanity would emerge as each viewer witnessed and realized how they themselves were affected by this genocide. I hoped that the portraits of the living would collapse the past and present and that the portraits of survivors and perpetrators would bare the traces of those who perished.
The very organization of the project was daunting. It took over eight months of emails, faxes, letters and telephone calls to convince the Rwandan Ministry of Justice to grant me permission to visit and work in Rwanda. These were months of long waiting, wondering when and how the authorities would finally respond. The procedures did not end there. Once I was allowed to enter Rwanda, I still had to assure, through a fairly complicated process, my access to the prisons. I had to wait for letters to be written to the directors of each prison requesting their help and assistance. Each letter had to be signed by the Minister of Justice and officially stamped by the Ministry. I still remember waiting for three days for signatures in a tall office building filled with uninterested bureaucrats and secretaries.
Retrospectively, I realize these letters were vague pleas for help from the Ministry of Justice on my behalf. In each venue the party responsible would read the request, query me further about the project and then deliberate as to whether or not I should receive access, and to what degree.
There was also the fundamental problem of language. I had a translator who accompanied me in all my travels, throughout the entire project. We succeeded in developing a good working relation but certain limitations still existed. Often he could not or would not ask the questions I posed. We discussed this a few times and I finally came to realize the there were just certain questions that he as a Rwandan could not ask. Our negotiations were long and difficult but we found a compromise. I remember when we first met my querying him as to whether he was a Hutu or Tutsi, he answered he was a Rwandan. He had returned from Burundi. My questioning arose from numerous issues and I did not want undue problems to arise when questioning inmates…. based upon ethnic issues.
Every day we traveled together to a prison, a survivor group, a courthouse or a prosecutor’s office. With letters of introduction and authorization in hand, we pleaded our case and hoped to gain access to interview and to photograph. A typical day went like this: we would arrive early morning at the prison, meet with the director and speak with him for an hour of so. Once we received permission (if not that day, then the next), a guard would accompany us to the prison doors. Then, we would enter without companion. There were no guards inside the prison. There was, rather, a hierarchy among the prisoners themselves. The prisoner in charge of security would greet us and then lead us to the prisoner in charge of inmates. From my diary about my first visit inside a prison,” in the Kigali prison, for example, some prisoners were dressed in pink, others half-dressed, and still others were in street clothes. Those in charge of security wore yellow berets; those responsible for information had red and white berets…I kept feeling their eyes upon me. For some I seemed simply a diversion, but the look I received from others is haunting still…I am interested in arresting time – rather than portraying the fluidity of it here….and to capture that look with my camera….”
My prison visits varied in length. Sometimes I would spend up to seven hours in the prison, meeting people, interviewing, finding places to work, understanding the new site where I found myself. I often entered a prison without knowing whom I wish to interview. Even in 1998, information was scant and there was little way to access any information at all. The only document I did have was a copy of the Rwanda Laws on Genocide that contained the definition of the four categories of imprisonment. In general I tried to work with individuals most culpable for the genocide.
I decided to work with category 1 and category 2 genocidaires, many of whom were sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Given that there was no list of prisoners which to consult and with whom to pre-arrange interviews, I needed to decide on the spot whom I was to interview and photograph, and this was an efficient, albeit problematic, strategy. Despite the fact that I worked primarily with these prisoners, I did meet, along the way others, alleged genocidaires and minors who were too young to be Category 1 but whom nonetheless participated in the killings of the 100 days of the genocide. My hope was that somehow through the images one could ultimately sense how all were connected and affected by this horrible crime.
Thus, I have chosen to present the images here without captions. Although the information is present elsewhere in the book, I believed as a photographer it was my responsibility to portray people without emphasizing my own preconceptions. I wanted something of each person to come through in the image, as an emotional and retinal experience. The more transparent my representation of each individual, the more opportunity exists for the person’s aura to present itself, even if momentarily. To recognize the aura is to identify the person. Of course I am involved in this process; the photograph is not a “truthful” document. Something of both the subject and the photographer is revealed in these photographs. By closing the space between oneself and the “other,” we can perhaps begin to ask more critical questions, to change fixed patterns of behavior, to arrest the impulse that reduces the individuality of strangers to mere savages and in so doing, conveniently remove ourselves from any complicity in or responsibility for their actions. Everyone lost in this genocide… It is my hope that these portraits will serve to put a more human face on the tragedy of Rwanda and bring us one step closer to seeing and thinking differently so that such a loss will never be experienced again.