Rwandan Photographer Mussa Uwitonze on Changing Visual Perceptions of His Country
Mussa Uwitonze began learning photography as a nine-year-old boy selected to work on a photo project at Imbabazi Orphanage in Gisenyi, Rwanda, where he grew up. He now lives in Kigali with his wife and two children. You can see his work at www.pprphoto.com and on Instagram at @photo_mussa.
Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. How did you get started in photography?
My photographic journey started when I was still at primary school, when an American photographer, David Jiranek, began a photography project at the Imbabazi Orphanage, where I grew up. I was one of 11 pupils given a disposable camera to take pictures of the world I saw around me. The project was called Through the Eyes of Children; its goal was to share with the world the perspective of the children, to provide an opportunity to reflect on the tragedy of the genocide by observing life today through the eyes of Rwanda’s children. The photos were exhibited in the United States, and the proceeds from print sales were used to fund schooling for the children in Rwanda. This gave me a lifelong passion for photography. My photographs highlight the poverty and injustice that I feel remains under the surface of the Rwandan society. For me, photography is an art that helps me open up and express yourself.
When you look at photos you took as a child at the orphanage, how do you feel about them?
I started photography when I was nine years old. I went on the street and photographed the world I saw around me, no one was intimidating me at all. People instead let me do whatever I wanted because I was young. When I look at the images I took when I was young, they are more comfortable and natural simply because my subjects were at the same age as me and most of my images were taken in my community, where everybody knew me.
But now that I have moved to a different part of the country and I am an adult, it is more difficult to take someone’s picture. Explaining the project I am doing (in the same language) helps them understand how the story will benefit then in some ways and in the end people usually agree to be photographed. But it takes time, especially in Rwanda, where photography is still not popular because we don’t have a lot of photographers or visual artists.
Rwandans are not used to photojournalism. Photography is coming up compared to the last 10-15 years. I have great faith that in five years to come, people will understand it much better and this will be easy is if there are photography workshops, exhibitions and festivals in Rwanda.
The only way I wish this could change is showing them the real Rwanda through our own lens, through our own eyes. We can explain Rwanda better as Rwandans than foreigners can.
Rwanda is known around the world because of the genocide in 1994. I know you prefer to photograph the here and now in Rwanda, so how do you deal with situations where a client may want to portray people or communities in a certain light because of the genocide?
I have been helping people to understand that my country does not focus on the past. We had a fatal experience of genocide in the past, but Rwanda is working on improving her people through education and other activities that will help in improving my country. As a photographer, I have learned so much through the pictures I take, because a picture is worth a thousand words. I would help the client see that Rwanda is not the country that focuses on the genocide and the past. I am using photography to portray Rwanda in a good light.
What do you wish would change regarding how foreigners and foreign organizations choose to visually represent Rwanda?
I think foreigners and foreign organizations already know the truth about Rwanda and its history, but some of them choose to portray Rwanda in a sad light, looking at their own interests. Their main focus is to sell or publish sad stories (like about the genocide in Rwanda) and they are not very much interested in stories of development. The only way I wish this could change is showing them the real Rwanda through our own lens, through our own eyes. We can explain Rwanda better as Rwandans than foreigners can.
I wish that NGOs or foreigners would read about the updated Rwanda, our values and our goals so that they can edit their captions and contents of their stories about Rwanda. We are still learning from our tragic past, but we have gone so far. Many people still talk about Rwanda in a sad light without knowing how we are focused on the future.
Can you tell us a bit about the ethical situations you sometimes face when working with NGOs?
Most NGOs have policies and procedures in place to protect their beneficiaries from abuse and exploitation. I try my best to meet the client’s interests no matter the challenge, even if it means having the subjects pose. Sometimes NGOs might be interested in what I may not like to photograph, but I still do the job. I don’t like photographing famine, disasters and other negative things.
Before the shoot I always talk to my clients on the collection of information from their beneficiaries to understand how the images will be used. The subject in my pictures must understand and be comfortable with this before I start my work and sign consent when necessary (the NGOs decide this).
When I am photographing for NGOs I do it having in mind that I should treat the people I’m photographing with respect. Speaking the same language helps a lot. I have never faced difficulties when I take time and explain my project to the subject am photographing, it takes time and energy though. I use my expertise to not harm my subject in anyway. For example, a certain nonprofit might need to show famine or diseases, and I know many ways to show that in a picture without being literal.
What kinds of photo stories and assignments do you wish clients would hire you for?
I would like to be hired for stories about human rights issues, stories of development, and entrepreneurial stories. I am now working on one personal story about women entrepreneurs. I visit different locations photographing the women’s small businesses.
The story that has made me most proud is about a street child in Kigali, his name is Shema. He lost his parents during the genocide and he was stealing from people and taking drugs. I wanted to show how life has been very challenging for some Rwandan youth. I photographed him during a workshop in Rwanda and that particular story allowed me travel to London to talk about it and exhibit it at Somerset House. This story has changed Shema’s life and mine, too.
After photographing Shema, I didn’t stop, because my intention was not to take pictures and walk away, I went to his neighborhood and shared his story. He lacked medical insurance, education, and shelter. But now the neighborhood leaders pay his medical insurance and have promised to send him to school. Now he no longer takes drugs or steals from people. His dream is going to a vocational training school. He still lacks his own shelter. He always comes to me whenever he has a big issue and I try to help however I can. This relationship came because of photography.
Shema’s story has a happy ending compared to the way Rwandans thought about it before. They thought that it is not a great idea to represent your country showing life on the street, but my intention was not showing life on the street. It was instead showing how life has been very challenging after the genocide especially to those who lost their parents and how Rwandan youth are trying hard to have a successful life.
Shema’s story does seem to have a happy ending, but it still sounds a bit like one of the sad stories that you mention foreigners and foreign organizations sometimes focus on in Rwanda. Why or how is your story different from those sad stories?
Yes, it is a sad story. But its intention is not to portray Rwanda in a sad light. It is instead a teaching story, a successful story telling the world that after a tragic life there is another life, and that is what Rwanda has achieved so far. Foreign photographers or NGOs sometimes use images of the last 23 years to talk about Rwanda because they know people will be interested in those sad images or stories. I would choose to see them using those images to talk about progress, development, and education.
Top photo caption: Yves, Jack and John watch a movie on their father’s laptop. Rulindo, Rwanda, 2016. Photo © Mussa Uwitonze.