new work from my Rwandan students

Portrait by Odilla Umuziranenge. Orphaned at a young age, Odilla has been participating in "Through the Eyes of Hope" for over seven years and now runs the studio most days. When I first saw this portrait she created last week, I was stunned by the beauty and solemnity of it.  Odila's photographic progress only affirmed my decision to come back and teach in Rwanda again this year.
Portrait by Odila Umuziranenge. Orphaned at a young age, Odila has been participating in “Through the Eyes of Hope” for over seven years.  She now runs the studio most afternoons and attends university classes in the evenings. When I first saw this portrait she created last week, I was stunned by the beauty and solemnity of it. Odila’s photographic progress only affirmed my decision to come back to teach in Rwanda again this year.

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.

Portrait by Lucky Fikiri
Portrait by Lucky Fikiri. This is a portrait of a community member who happened to be passing by the studio and came in to get her photo taken.  Her shy but delighted response to seeing the print of herself was quite touching.
Self-portrait by Joshua Munyaburanga. Joshua calls this image "Two Brothers" as the boy on the right side of the frame is his brother, Sustain, while the face in the mirror is his own.
Self-portrait by Joshua Munyaburanga. Joshua calls this image “Two Brothers” as the boy on the right side of the frame is actually his brother, Sustain, while the face in the mirror is his own.
Portrait by Bobo Simubara
Portrait of fellow TEOH student, Lucky Fikiri, by Bobo Simubara. This photo came out of an assignment to create an imaginative studio portrait. The students got incredibly creative and while I was distracted editing work with another student, used fabric, jewelry, paint and other accessories to create images that reflected their culture.
Portrait of three brothers by Joseph Korerimana
Portrait of three brothers by Joseph Korerimana. These brothers were just a few of the community members who visited the studio on Valentine’s day to get a free photo and print of themselves. Many of them people who walked away with a print do not have any other print of themselves so it was wonderful to see their reaction to the glossy 4x6s they received.
Portrait by Sustain Kabalisa
Portrait by Sustain Kabalisa. This security guard was one of the community members to visit the studio on Valentine’s day. I was struck by the beautiful light in this image and the seriousness of his pose.
Portrait by Joseph Korerimana
Portrait by Joseph Korerimana. This is a portrait of  TEOH student, Odila Umuziranenge and a  friend’s child.  Odila is one of TEOH’s original students and has really thrived over the years. I loved the joyfulness and spontaneity of this image and was particularly impressed since Joseph, the photographer, is one of TEOH’s youngest students and is in the early stages of learning photography.
Portrait by Justine Mukundiyukuri
Portrait by Justine Mukundiyukuri. This image came out of one of the portrait assignments I gave the students in preparation for our open studio event on Valentine’s Day.  Again, I was impressed with Justine’s creativity in response to the assignment. Incidentally, the yellow container on the girl’s head is the kind of  water container one sees children fetching water in all over Rwanda.
Portrait by Bobo Simubara
Portrait by Bobo Simubara. This image too emerged from the studio portrait assignments in preparation for our open studio event.
Portrait by Hamis Ndikumukiza
Portrait of fellow TEOH student, Sustain Kabalisa, by Hamis Ndikumukiza. Incidentally, the murals on the wall behind Sustain were painted by the students.
Portrait by Prossy Yohana
Portrait by Prossy Yohana.  This image came out of assignment about depth of field. The students were learning how to use the donated SLR’s in manual mode and were asked to create portraits with a wide aperture which creates a shallow depth of field. I loved the pensiveness of this image and thought the shallow depth of field worked beautifully to isolate the girl against the background..
This image, made by Odilla Umuzirangenge, was one of my favorite to come out of an assignment the students were given to photograph at their church.  The photo is of a choir member singing at the end of a three plus hour pentacostal service (which I too attended with my student) held in a tent whose temperature rose and rose throughout the service.  I thought this photo really captured the passion with which she approached her singing and praising.
This image, made by Odilla Umuzirangenge, was one of my favorite to come out of an assignment the students were given to photograph at their church. The photo is of a choir member singing at the end of a three-plus hour pentacostal service (which I too attended with my student) held in a tent whose temperature rose and rose throughout the service. I thought this photo really captured the passion with which she approached her singing and praising.
Taken after our Valentine's day open studio event, this is a photo of me with my "Through the Eyes of Hope" students and the equipment generously donated by my fellow photographers. Thank you again to all those who donated!  I hope you enjoyed seeing what your generosity helped enable!
Taken after our Valentine’s day open studio event, this is a photo of me with my “Through the Eyes of Hope” students and the equipment generously donated by my fellow photographers. Thank you again to all those who donated! I hope you enjoyed seeing what your generosity helped enable!

This blog strives to be an interesting place of discovery–a place to share beautiful or disturbing photos, discover new places and people and lose oneself in this extraordinary medium. If you or someone you know would like to receive new blog posts directly through your email, please sign up directly on my blog site–Apertures and Anecdotes (in the right hand column)–or email me at julia@juliacumesphoto.com. Thank you!

ps. comments are closed due to an overabundance of spam but please feel free to respond to this blog post directly if you have any questions or comments.

 

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