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Through the Eyes of Children

May 06th, 2020
topic:Child rights
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Rwanda
tags:genocide, Rwanda, Through the Eyes of Children

Growing up in Rwanda in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, 19 children out of several hundred living in the Imbabazi Orphanage were given the gift of learning photography with the U.S.-based nonprofit Through the Eyes of Children. Many of the children were just eight years old when the project began and had never ever seen a camera before.

The workshops were held over 11 years with the same children. The resulting photographs — which are believed to be the largest body of photographic work in Rwanda post-genocide created by survivors — have been exhibited throughout the world, including at the United Nations and at the New York and Los Angeles premieres of the movie Hotel Rwanda, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, The Holocaust Museums of Houston, Texas, and Naples, Florida, and at several universities throughout the U.S. and in Europe.

Funds raised through the children’s photography helped to pay school fees for all of the children at the Imbabazi Orphanage, and proved to them that people value their perspective and were interested in seeing Rwanda through their eyes. 

Through the Eyes of Children was originally conceived by photographer David Jiranek in collaboration with The Imbabazi Orphanage where the children lived. After David’s passing, the project was continued on through the work of professional photographer Kristen Ashburn and marketing executives Jenifer Howard and Joanne McKinney, who became involved in the organisation in 2001, and have run its day-to-day operations since 2003.

The first beneficiaries of the project, Mussa Uwitonze, Gadi Habumugisha and Jean Bizimana now teach photography to Rwandan children, allowing them to share their stories with the world.

They shared their story with FairPlanet in this interview:

FairPlanet: Tell us about the Through the Eyes of Children organisation and the journey so far.

Mussa Uwitonze: Photography changes lives. It did for 19 Rwandan orphans who participated in the award-winning photo project Through the Eyes of Children that was founded in 2000 in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi. Now today, those young photographers or “Camera Kids” as they were fondly called when they originally learned photography, have grown up and are teaching photography to other vulnerable youth in the world.

Photography helped us rebuild memories and connect us to our community. We had lost everything in the war; our families, our homes, but through photography, we started creating new memories.

Gadi Habumugisha: With a camera in our hands, we were not seen as victims of the genocide any more. We were important members of the community documenting life as we saw it, through the eyes of children.

Jean Bizimana: I was eight years old when the project began in 2000. My first photos were blurry. But I didn’t mind, and through our lessons, my photos got better. Little did I know then that a camera would change my life… but it did.”

Why did you pick photography to reach out to vulnerable children? 

Mussa Uwitonze: Growing up at the Imbabazi Orphanage, we learned photography at a young age, some of us holding our first camera when we were only eight or nine years old,” said. We have now embraced photography in our personal and professional lives and are expanding on the mission of Through the Eyes of Children by teaching more children photography throughout the world.

The main reason we want photography to reach out to vulnerable children is because we know they need something special in their lives to be able to express themselves in ways that don’t require them to open their mouths and speak. One picture tells a thousand stories.  Who knows what a child in Haiti wants to say? What about a teen in Nepal? We have realised that children around the world are the most affected when there is chaos, wars, conflicts and so on, and during this time, they don’t even have a say on what is going on.

We were given a voice when we were young by expressing ourselves through photographs that we took and this has benefited not only us but also our country and the whole world. There is nothing better than giving children a platform to express themselves.”

Gadi Habumugisha: By learning photography as orphans, it changed our lives. Photography gave us another way of expressing ourselves. We thought the way taking photos changed our lives, that it would definitely change others kids’ lives too.

What are some of the memorable moments since the project began?

Gadi Habumugisha: This last spring, we got to return to Boston, Massachusetts, where we taught a photo workshop in 2018 to a group of foster children. The organisation we worked with there was so moved by the photo workshop and the children’s reactions that they invited us to speak at their annual Gala. Being up on stage and seeing the photographs and the children we taught was an amazing experience.

Mussa Uwitonze: For me, one of the greatest moments was learning that the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, was given one of my photographs, Sitting on a Rail, as a gift. When that happened, I knew my photos mattered. I knew I mattered. For an orphan, that was a very big deal.

Bizimana Jean: Travelling to the United States for the first time to teach photo workshops with children in America for me was very memorable. We were always the ones having Americans come to us in Rwanda when we were little, living at the orphanage. Now it is our turn to pay it forward and connect with other children in the world who could use a hand. It was moving to learn that there are children with histories similar to ours all over the world.

What is one of the flagship initiatives of your organisation and what impact has it had on the beneficiaries?

Mussa Uwitonze: In one of our workshops, a 14 year-old girl told us that the photo workshop was the first time she had been happy in her life. That was really powerful and showed us that what we were teaching them really mattered.

What is the most exciting thing about working on this project?

Bizimana Jean: For me it is seeing children really grasp photography -- and then seeing their faces light up when we show them the photos they took up on a big screen for all of their friends and families to see. 

Gadi Habumugisha: I second that. Seeing them smile and be happy is very rewarding.

Mussa Uwitonze: One of the most rewarding and exciting things about Through the Eyes of Children is forging a relationship with these children through photography. Once they become photographers, they are in our photographic family - a family they might not have had before.

What in your opinion is the place and space of this project towards advancing national healing and reconciliation in Rwanda?

Mussa Uwitonze: For our project the main focus is neither reconciliation nor healing. We simply let the photography perform its miracles. While teaching the photo workshops, we create spaces for dialogue and engagement (an example is a drum circle), so the children can interact with each other and with us, which helps build trust among them. This project has been a perfect fit for Rwanda, a country that has been affected by genocide.

Today, we are using photography with the survivors and perpetrators who are living together and still have to cope with the ramifications of the war so long ago. Photography helps them come together with a common goal.”

Bizimana Jean: Bringing the children of survivors and genocide perpetrators together in a photo workshop hasn’t been done before, that we know of, in Rwanda. Photography helps break the tension and shows them that they are all the same. It’s very powerful.

What are the future plans of the organisation and what does it need to get there?

Gadi Habumugisha: We would like to travel to many countries to teach as many kids as possible and also be able to come back to place we have been before to see the kids we taught. As a nonprofit, we need funding to be able to accomplish our mission and we rely on generous donations to help fund the photo workshops.

Bizimana Jean: Our goal is to help as many children share their world and their stories through photography as we can. Photography changed our lives and it can change other children’s lives too.

To learn more about Through the Eyes of Children, please visit camerakids.photos or follow on Instagram @camerakids_photos or Facebook @camerakids.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Rwanda
Sharing Photos_Rwanda
Paul Kagame_Sitting on a Rail
Camera Kids_Rwanda_2000