Jonathan Torgovnik: Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape
Aperture Gallery: February 20 – May 7, 2009
Intended Consequences conveys through its visual parity the burden of long-internalized silence—unbroken until now—over the sexual torture of Rwandan women by militiamen during and after the bloodiest phase of the 1994 genocide. It is a legacy, recounted in first-person testimonies displayed alongside Jonathan Torgovnik’s photographic portraits, that even its inheritors, the children born of rape, cannot fully know.
To express the daily struggles of these families, the social stigma forcing them into the silence of their homes, and the irreversible effects of trauma, deep poverty and disease, requires a very sensitive treatment—one that Hollywood cannot offer with its voluptuous sentimentality. There is something appropriately pared-down in the dialogic format of photo and text—the skin of the experience conscious of its own skimming of the surface—a scarred surface indeed.
The photojournalistic juxtaposition of image and text inherently challenges the viewer’s reconciliation between the complex corps of voices of about thirty Rwandan women and the richly hued photographs depicting them and their children in their homes and environs. For some mothers, their children embody the pangs of shame and severe trauma. For others, the children are the source of hope and strength to go on in spite of great adversity. In one image, a woman named Valentine embraces one of her two daughters, who is holding a supple green sprig of a plant like a delicate peace offering. In the background stands her other daughter, wearing a simple dress the same color as the adobe wall she leans against. The back story holding together the family is less picturesque: the daughter standing in the background was the child of Valentine’s husband who was killed during the war; the other the result of rape after Valentine was released from a refugee camp in Congo. She tells us this was not an isolated violation: she was also raped repeatedly while she was pregnant with her first daughter. This verbal testimony is virtually irreconcilable with the accompanying image, in which the younger daughter gently leans her head against the arc of her mother’s encircling arms, while we are face-to-face with Valentine’s anguished expression: a gesture of tragic beauty.
While Intended Consequences ever so carefully doses its measure of trauma and reconciliation, the portraits get into your bones rather than your brains. To straightforwardly address the most guarded matters, visually and literally, is a difficult step in the process of storytelling; admittedly their statements are their first step to recovery, but the women are also painfully aware of the “unspeakable” nature of the horrors they underwent. As a result, we learn in explicit terms the tragic stories that the mothers try to protect their own children from hearing, although it affects the children most directly. In the tradition of the frontal portrait, long held as photojournalism’s stock to truth, a grid of square portraits of each of the children look out at us from one wall against velvety black backgrounds—melancholic, young, and expressive. Here they are alone, yet the displaced voices of the mothers encroach the frame. We must negotiate what we are told and what the children cannot know. One day soon, their flimsy sheltering from this degree of knowledge will no longer be sustainable, and the children will come fully into the challenges of their lot; for some, caring for an HIV-positive parent will accelerate the process. Yet these children, as the amalgamation of Hutu and Tutsi lineage, comprise the generation that promises a certain resolution to turmoil. Torgovnik plans to revisit them in the future.
The Rwandan government offers no relief for children born after the war, a great denial of the sexual atrocities that were de facto militia tactics. One woman, Bernadette, who had a leg amputated because of severe beating, nevertheless, approaches the difficulty of disclosure with humor and sagacity:
“My son is twelve years old, and I think he knows, though we have never sat down and squarely talked about it. Once he came crying and yelling that someone told him, ‘you’re the son of a militiaman. Your father is in prison.’ The philosophy I use for my life is to laugh; so I laughed and after laughing told him, ‘Why should that worry you? Why should that make you cry?’ If he has brains, he should know by the way I laughed. I confirmed to him that he is the son of a militiaman.”
While some of the women have begun to take stock of what happened under the aegis of the Association of the Widows of Genocide, in church meetings, or in the “Gacaca” courts in which civilians judge their peers, they are very conscious that they are bringing their story beyond their own community through Targovnik.
Turning a blind eye
Torgovnik recounts in a video testimony that will be published in an accompanying book this spring, that even to be an observer required great courage, and ultimately could not be prepared for. The human rights advocates who tried to intervene during the genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu “sympathists” (wives, friends and neighbors) died, and to raise awareness of it during the ensuing 15 years, must continually confront the question of why a blind eye was turned, before and especially during the height of the genocide. When the UN Security council retracted half of its troops in 1994, human rights experts, such as Dr. Alison Des Forges who recently died in the crash of flight 3407, protested that it would signal American indifference to the violence being carried out by radical Hutu militiamen. Even today, because of the stigma around rape, especially as it was used as a tactic of war, there is a great disparity between the National Population Office of Rwanda’s estimates of the number of children born of forced impregnation, which is from two to five thousand, and what the information provided by victim groups reflects, between ten and twenty-five thousand.
Torgovnik has not only become portraitist, advocate and activist through his project, he has also co-founded Foundation Rwanda, a non-profit organization to help provide funding for the secondary education of these children—the common wish these mothers seek to provide for their children—and to connect mothers with psychological and medical support systems in their community (www.foundationrwanda.org). His wish is not only to raise awareness through art, but also to address the fact that sexual violence is similarly being carried out against women in Congo, Darfur, and elsewhere.
As a woman named Stella says to close her testimony: “Even the legacy of genocide is too much to live with. The international community has a debt to pay because it didn’t come to our rescue. They should now come support us in the legacy of genocide.”
Our looking begins to assimilate the harrowing aftermath of the genocide and the dark side of our humanity—capable of such violent extremes and likewise of playing bystander to them. This Rwandan inheritance, we come to see, is an excruciatingly difficult one: HIV/AIDS, shame, extreme poverty, and psychological torture. But in these portraits we can also find incomprehensible strength and the salve of maternal love.