In our media saturated culture, it’s easy to understand tragedy and conflict symbolically. When we think about acts of terrorism in Iraq, we evoke bombed out cars in chaotic marketplaces, flashing lights and armored vehicles. The burkha stands in for the oppression experienced by women under the Taliban. But, somewhere in this visual lexicon, we lose the real people. As much as the media informs, it also alienates us from the intricacies of human suffering.
Jonathan Torgovnik confronts suffering head-on in his current exhibit at the Aperture Foundation, Intended Consequences. After traveling to Rwanda on an assignment for Newsweek, Torgovnik discovered that more than 20,000 children had been born as a result of the rampant sexual violence that occurred during the Rwandan genocide. For three years, he traveled to Rwanda, taking photographs and documenting the stories of women who had children as a result of rape. The show highlights extreme examples of the human experience — both the sickening brutality that we inflict on each other and our extraordinary ability to recover. Far from the sterilized symbols prevalent in the news media, Intended Consequences challenges its audience to understand conflict in terms of the people affected.
After the jump, the photographer talks about his inspiration for Intended Consequences and the foundation that he developed to aid these women and their children.
Flavorwire: Tell us a bit about how this project developed.
Jonathan Torgovnik: So, I first traveled to Rwanda in 2006 for Newsweek to cover a story for the 25th anniversary of HIV/AIDS. I traveled with the health editor and we went to several countries in Africa to report. We were in Tanzania and Kenya and we also visited Rwanda. The reporter I was with was very interested in meeting and interviewing women who were raped in the genocide and contracted HIV from those rapes and wanted to look at how HIV was used and is still being used as a weapon of war in conflict areas.
We met Odette who was brutally raped and her family was killed in front of her and she contracted HIV from these rapes. But, from these interviews we also found out that she became pregnant and had a baby boy as well. It was the most horrific interview I have ever sat in on in my career. We were all in tears — she described to us in great detail, in a very candid way, step by step, her journey throughout the genocide.
This story really affected me tremendously and I started thinking, “how many kids like this are there in Rwanda? Is this an isolated incident or is this widespread phenomenon?” Coming back from this assignment to New York, I decided to make this a personal project and to go back to Rwanda on my own accord without any assignment to research this a little further and collect the testimonies of these women and photograph them and their children. I found that an estimated 20,000 children has been born of rape during the genocide. There’s this whole generation of kids growing up under these circumstances who are half Hutu and half Tutsi. You can imagine the relationships that they have with their mothers, the complexity of the relationships. The mothers that you saw in the exhibition and all the other mothers that I interviewed had not told their children yet about the circumstances of how they were born. Most of them told me that they think the kids know — people talk and they see their physical features being a mix and Hutu and Tutsi. It’s easy to come to conclusions about how you were born.
I found that the mothers are struggling with multiple levels of trauma directly related to what happened to them. In Rwanda, I think it’s probably on the most severe level because of the degree of brutality inflicted on them; not only being brutally raped, beaten and humiliated, but a lot of them are HIV positive from these rapes. The most important problems they are facing right now is dealing with the stigma of rape, HIV, and having the child of a militia, having a child of the enemy. Their own families and communities are rejecting them and ostracizing them because of that. When you think about how these women were just innocent young girls… their children now are innocent victims, but still they are being victimized. They’re still being rejected, still being ostracized for not doing anything other than being violated. Even if there is help in the areas they live in, they don’t seek it out because of the stigma and because they will have to reveal what happened to them. No one goes out there and specifically tends to their needs in a confidential way.
This is why I co-founded Foundation Rwanda. For the first time in my career, I decided to move past trying to cover a story that I felt was not reported enough and to take it to the next level — to really do something for them specifically and provide secondary school education for their children. This idea came from the mothers, because when I asked them what they wanted for their children during the interviews, they almost all said that they all wanted them to have a brighter future through education. This was remarkable for me to hear because in addition to all the other things I mentioned, they live in extreme poverty. They did not ask for a house or clothes or for anything else. They recognize the value of education for their children to be able to develop the skills to provide for themselves. This is where this whole idea of starting a foundation that will support education and link these mothers in a proactive, confidential way to the psychological and medical help they desperately need began.
FW: Do you think this project will raise awareness or change how people perceive what’s going on in Darfur or Congo?
JT: Absolutely. It’s great that you’re asking this because the stories from this project, and this exhibit, and this book, are from Rwanda, but its happening now in Darfur and especially in Congo. And, by the way, a lot of the guys who are raping women in Congo are the same people, the same Hutu militia from Rwanda who are in exile in Congo raping on a massive scale there. It’s unbelievable to me that this is still going on. So, this happened in Rwanda but it’s still going on all the time. I get questions about Darfur often, and I say that this is true, but, you can imagine these women that I’m interviewing almost fifteen years later. It’s still very difficult for them to talk, so imagine someone who went through it now. It’s so fresh and the women do not even know the consequences of how it will affect her. I basically feel like it’s not fair and it’s not even possible to collect those stories. I feel that through the stories of the women of Rwanda, we will be able to understand, unfortunately, what these women who are going through this right now in Darfur and Congo, for instance, are going to go through. I also have an idea — let’s see if I can make it happen, but, one of my ideas to try to take a few of these Rwandan survivors who spoke with me and facilitate some kind of meeting with women who went through this in Congo and put them in a room and let them talk. Maybe this will help the women of Congo shorten the process of healing by several years — learning from the words and the experiences of the women in Rwanda. But, definitely the idea is to raise awareness about the consequences of sexual violence not only in Africa and war torn countries. It’s happening here in the United States. It’s happening everywhere in the world. Women are being subjected to sexual violence every day in every city and of course, again, these stories are the extreme of the extreme, but I’m hoping that this project will help raise awareness about the project in general.
FW: By starting a foundation, you’ve broken down the barrier that traditionally exists between a photojournalist and his subjects. Do you think that this is the future of photojournalism?
JT: I don’t know if it’s the future. I mean, I hope that a lot more people do that, but I don’t expect anyone to do that. For me, it just happened in an organic way. I didn’t plan for that — it was just something I felt like I had to do. It just kind of evolved. I was just so obsessed with this project and concerned about this issue and these women. I felt so close to them and this really changed my life in many ways. They are the strongest human beings I have ever met in my life — to go through what they did and still survive and raise these children and be resilient. Starting the foundation was something that came from them…
FW: You confronted one of the most extreme examples of human suffering imaginable. What is the most important thing that you learned?
JT: Well, the thing that I’ll never understand is how a human being can do this. How these guys, these thugs, these militiamen were able to inflict this amount of brutality on another human being, let alone another woman — an innocent woman and a young woman. Many of these girls were fourteen or fifteen years old. I’ll never be able to really explain this. The biggest question I have is how did this happen? A lot of these guys killed the entire family of these women in front of them, raped them and kept them alive only to let them die in misery. So, I don’t know. It doesn’t really answer your question, but the two questions I have are how does a human being become so brutal? and then how does a human being have the strength to survive that? So, it’s the survival mechanisms we have and the mechanisms of brutality that we have at the same time.