The Rwanda Initiative and PhotoSensitive joined forces to shed light on Rwanda's struggle with the AIDS pandemic. Seven PhotoSensitive photojournalists spent ten days in Rwanda in December 2007 to photograph individual stories behind the spread of the disease. Andrew Stawicki says the trip—partnering seven Photosensitive photographers with seven local Rwandan photographers and pairing them with journalism students - was "a fantastic experience of sharing knowledge and skills."
"This project was Peter Bregg's baby. He knew about with the Rwanda Initiative (www.rwandainitiative.ca) and had met Romeo Dallaire, the former commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in Rwanda who had tried desperately to stop the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Peter said Carleton University was working with the National University of Rwanda and he felt PhotoSensitive should get involved, so we did. Each PhotoSensitive photographer was put together with a local photographer and a Rwandan student, to be a little team. On the first day, we were given a long list of possible assignments, and we sat around and chose who would do what - 'I'll do the hospital, you do the orphanage, you do the school.' After ten days of work, we invited the local newspaper editors and managers for coffee and we put up a series of photographs on a screen. As we looked at them, we asked, 'Will you publish this? … and this? … and this?'
"They said, 'These are brilliant! We'll publish them tomorrow.
"We said, 'You're sure?'
"Then we said, 'Your photographers took some of these pictures.'
"And they said, 'WOW!'.
"We changed the thinking of the people who make decisions at this newspaper in Kigali. I'm not saying we changed things completely, but the way their own photographers shot those pictures had changed forever. They were used to taking head shots, formal photos. Boring! Boring! Boring! We changed how they looked at things," said Andrew.
They also left something more behind. "We left them eight cameras and some of our lenses. We donated cameras that were 'old' here in Canada, but to them, they were like BMWs. And they're still using it all: the cameras, the lenses - plus the knowledge, and the new way of looking at their world."
Lessons in photojournalism, lessons in humanity
To prepare for his trip into sub-Saharan Africa, Yuri Dojc watched the movie Hotel Rwanda. He was a little taken aback when the first stop after arriving at Kigali airport was Hotel Rwanda - not to check in, but to attend a reception. He met 'his' photographer ("the shortest little guy, Lawrence") and 'his' local student ("Pamela - the only girl and so sweet, just a kid, learning from scratch"). And then Yuri followed his personal rule about parties: only talk to people you don't know. He struck up a conversation with an Indian woman named Sputnik ("named after the Soviet satellite, because she was born the day it was launched into space!"). Sputnik would prove to be an invaluable contact.
"The next day, we woke up and chose our assignments. My team took two. The first was 'How to Teach AIDS Prevention (Wooden Penis)' - it was the phrase 'wooden penis' that caught my eye. The second was 'Orphans with AIDS.' We drove to the Ministry of Health, to ask where we could see an AIDS prevention lecture and find that wooden penis."
Yuri recalls it was a case of "One bureaucrat. Two bureaucrat. Three bureaucrat … like counting sheep, slowly"… and he tired of it very quickly.
"I suddenly realized that I was supposed to be sharing my skills with Lawrence and Pamela, and I never go through bureaucracies to find stories. Sputnik had given me her business card, so I pulled it out of my pocket and called her. She said, absolutely, she could help me. Before we knew it, we were watching a class with a teacher talking about AIDS prevention - and in his hand was … a wooden penis. He showed everyone how to roll down a condom.
"Next, we had to find some orphans with AIDS. Again, we ran into red tape. Again, I called Sputnik and she said her housekeeper helped street kids. We went with her, deep into the slums, and all of a sudden we were mobbed by what seemed like hundreds of street kids. They all rush to meet you. Some had lost parents to the genocide or to AIDS; some had HIV/AIDS themselves. They touch your skin. They held onto your leg. One of them put his head on my shoulder and clung for dear life.
"We went into the little hut that Sputnik's housekeeper had set up for a dozen of the children. They had to push away others, it was such a small room. Each of them would beg for money during the day, and then return to this hut to sleep. Sputnik's housekeeper couldn't give them money but she gave them each other. They leaned on each other - they had become each other's family. You can see the friendship, the mutual need, a sense of protection, the humanity in inhumane circumstances," said Yuri.
When the project was wrapping up, the local and PhotoSensitive photographers reflected on their experiences. Lawrence and Pamela stood up and tried to put into words what Yuri had taught them.
"What I learned," said Lawrence, "is that you can't just think 'Go. Take a picture. And go home.' Yuri taught me you have to work for the picture. You have to stay and hang around and let the picture find you. "
Pamela said she learned how to go after a story, avoid conflict and stay calm. Yuri picked up on that.
"There are always moments of tension when you go into places like this. When we were taking photos of the wooden penis, one of the presenters demanded a hundred dollars. He became quite abusive. I told Pamela, 'Keep calm and disappear as fast as you can. Walk slowly to the car, keep talking to him, and then, as soon as we reach the car, we are getting out of here!' That's one lesson: whatever happens, stay calm. Our goal as photographers is to bring the story back and we do everything reasonable to get it. Call a contact, travel into dark spaces, make friends, be invited in. My only regret was being in Rwanda for just ten days. That's a lesson, too: stay as long as you can. It's hard to get back," said Yuri.
Once home, PhotoSensitive remains at the heart of Yuri's learning experience.
"It's the group, it's the friendships but, most of all, PhotoSensitive helps me to be a better human being - someone who is not as selfish as he might otherwise be. People think we are generous to give our time, but we benefit. We are the ones who are given so much. Photography is building an album of images to pass on to another. Memory is important. It is part of life to see and to remember and to learn. We put people in touch with humanity," said Yuri.
After a day of shooting
Yuri Dojc recalls everyone settled into a routine during the ten days in Rwanda. "When we each came back from our assignments, we'd have dinner together. Everyone would be talking over the other guy about where they went, what they did. And then, back at the compound, computers were everywhere. Some of us would lie on the ground, some would sit and there would be a million blinking lights, from all the computer chargers. We'd fight over those! And we all wanted to see each other's pictures and hear the best stories of the day. Finally, exhausted, we'd go to our rooms. I shared one with Peter Bregg and the standard order was: 'Don't snore!," he said.