After my experience last year teaching photography to students at the “Through the Eyes of Hope” program in Kigali, Rwanda, I knew without a doubt that I had to come back. For those of you who didn’t see my blog post last year, here’s a bit of back story. “Through the Eyes of Hope” was founded by photojournalist, Linda Smith, in 2006 and is wonderful program that seeks to empower kids through photography. The program not only enables them to express themselves creatively but also means they can earn a bit of money through the studio they run where they primarily provide passport photos for locals. The students’ work has been shown in exhibits in both Rwanda and the US.
After I left Rwanda last year, I was determined to get more cameras for the kids to use since they were sharing three consumer-level cameras. I approached fellow professional photographers as well as local Cape Cod camera shop, Orleans Camera, about donating older generation cameras that they no longer used. I was so touched by the generous response I received and was thrilled to be able to send six professional-level digital SLRs with lenses and cf cards back to Rwanda.
What drew me back to Rwanda after last year’s experience was the kids’ enthusiasm, appreciation, exploding creativity and complete lack of entitlement. When I arrived at the airport three weeks ago, I was joyfully greeted by four of my students and received big, welcoming hugs. Since arriving, I’ve been training the students on the donated cameras, pushing them to improve their technical skills and also working on capturing “moments”. Since there are few photo studios in Kigali, we’ve especially been focused on improving their studio skills since they’re in unique position to offer professional studio photos to clients at a reasonable price. Together we worked towards preparing for an “open studio” day which we decided to make on Valentine’s Day, during which we would offer community members a free photo session and print. The idea behind this was to show the community the amazing work the students can do, create some positive PR for the studio and hopefully create some future customers.
During the days before Valentine’s day, the students had several assignments to create interesting studio portraits. I was thrilled with how enthusiastically they approached this task and what beautiful work came out of these assignments, some of which you will see below. When Valentine’s day arrived, I knew they were ready. Word spread quickly about what we were offering and we soon had a steady flow of community members coming in for the photo session and print. I was so happy and moved to see the customers’ consistently smiling responses when we handed them the glossy 4×6 print. Of course I was also elated to see what good work the students were producing, some of which is included below.
Beyond working together on their photography skills, we also made several field trips. The first was to Nyamata Church, a genocide memorial site where 10,000 Rwandans were brutally murdered during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Only seven people survived the attacks at Nyamata and these were all children who went unnoticed because they were hidden under adult bodies. None of the students had ever visited the site before. While they’ve grown up learning about the genocide at school, I thought seeing the memorial site in person would be powerful for them as well as for me and open up a dialog about Rwanda’s painful past. It did turn out to be a very difficult but meaningful experience for us all which I don’t really think words can describe.
Then, last weekend, some of the students joined me for a trip to Akagera National Park about two and a half hours from Kigali which again, most of them had never visited. Having grown up in South Africa myself, visiting the wilderness and seeing South Africa’s incredible wildlife was such a rich part of my childhood and it pained me to think that these Rwandan students had never seen the rich wildlife in their own country. It was wonderful to see their excited reaction to zebras, giraffes, hippos, a crocodile and the many other amazing wild animals we saw during our visit.
As my time with the students winds down, I think of all the moments in which I’ve been moved by my experience here. One particular moment that struck me most powerfully was during our drive to Nyamata to visit the genocide memorial site. The students are all passionate about music and they spent much of the drive singing together–primarily Rwandan religious songs–harmonizing beautifully and just having so much fun. As their voices rose up in the car, I found myself with a huge smile on my face coupled with a painful lump in my throat. How strange and beautiful to be driving towards this reminder of Rwanda’s traumatic past with a new generation joyfully singing their hearts out.
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