— In 1998, amateur photographer David Jiranek traveled to Rwanda in an attempt to understand the horrific genocide he had seen unfolding on the evening news.
After arriving in the war-ravaged country, Jiranek set to the task of documenting what he saw. The aftermath of war was all around — bombed-out houses, deserted cars and children without parents.
He began taking pictures, but soon he realized it would be more difficult than he imagined. The local residents were slow in opening up to him. They were suspicious of his big camera with the telephoto lens.
Soon afterward, he met a woman named Rosamond Halsey Carr. Although she was from New York City, she had been living in Rwanda since 1955. In 1994, she founded the Imbabazi Orphanage in response to the need faced by the scores of children who had lost their parents during the war.
After meeting Carr and the more than 100 children at her orphanage, Jiranek got an idea. He would give the children disposable cameras, teach them basic photography and send them out to document what they saw, through their own eyes.
The result was amazing, as Jiranek described in this interview with ABCNEWS:
Question: Can you explain how your mission of going to Rwanda changed from documenting the aftermath of the genocide to teaching the children about photography?
When I first traveled to Rwanda, I had never been to Africa, and I had really only read about Rwanda and the genocide in magazines and a book. It was literally an event so beyond my imagination that it somehow held some kind of attraction for me.
I understood all the reasons that people had to avoid dealing with such an atrocity — but I guess I also felt that we owed it to ourselves, and our own sense of security, to question how and why something like this could have happened. I certainly wanted to understand, because I do feel that we all have the same basic concerns in life, no matter where we come from. So it was in this spirit that I went over, not to try and document, but to try and learn something.
But as I wandered the country, with some fear and trepidation, I took pictures and realized I was coming more to grips with what I couldn't know, being an outsider, than with anything my pictures could say.
But I did meet a group of street kids along the side of a road that took a great interest in my camera.I quickly taught them how to take pictures of each other, and we had a great time. But after the moment was over, and I drove away, I was saddened to think they would also never get a chance to see the photos.
It was then that I thought, "Wouldn't it be great if kids had the opportunity to record images for themselves, and to be able to keep pictures of things which are important to them?" I also thought, "Wouldn't it be infinitely more fascinating to see Rwanda through their eyes?" And so the idea was born. And the next year I returned with 50 disposable cameras.
Q.: What were their reactions to your teaching? Enjoyment, excitement, fear, etc.?
I chose an orphanage in Rwanda, which is a story unto itself, but the first thing I noticed is that the orphans that I worked with were the most incredibly well-behaved and eager-to-please kids I had ever encountered. These kids in Rwanda were literally sponges for knowledge, and they didn't squander one moment by side talking or goofing around — and after four years, this is still true.
Remember, none of these kids had ever taken a picture before, and there was little chance for them to even look at pictures. Even the kids at 7 and 8 were so aware of what they didn't have, that they were just grateful for any kind of interaction. And they were so patient.
It wasn't until after three weekend workshops — where all we did was look at pictures, draw, make collages, demonstrate the cameras, and have show-and-tells — that I gave them the disposable cameras. Then, during one three-hour period, they went out into the community alone, with two cameras each, and took pictures.
That was a scary experience for them because adults, who also had very little in the way of possessions, were not used to seeing kids wander around with disposable cameras. The adults wanted copies of the pictures, they wanted to know what they were going to be used for, they wanted the kids to pay them money, and it was all very tricky — as every professional photojournalist knows. But it was during that first session that some of the most exciting pictures I have ever seen were taken — pictures that have won international photo contests and been exhibited worldwide.
Q.: Are there any shining moments from your experiences that you can/would like to share with readers?
Frederick, a 17-year-old boy without hands [they were chopped off by someone with a machete], was one of our photographers. At first my assistant, Jill, tried to rig the camera with an eraser so that he could push the shutter button while somehow holding the camera body between his wrists. I still can't remember how I thought this would all work at the time. …
But Frederick then taught us that he didn't need the eraser, he was able to do it all on his own, by himself. His first pictures were a bit shaky, but he mastered it, the same way he has mastered writing, drawing and painting. He has since won a contest in the 2003 Photo District News photo annual that led to a Canon Scholarship.
And in October, I had the amazing experience of accompanying Frederick to the U.S., where he was given state-of-the-art prosthetic hands along with training, donated by doctors from Ohio. Frederick then came to Old Greenwich [in Connecticut] and visited New York City, where he was filmed and interviewed by Charlie Gibson for ABC Primetime, before returning to Rwanda, where they also filmed his homecoming.
Before the trip, we were all concerned that Frederick would not be able to handle the culture shock, since he had never traveled more than 15 miles from his hometown, and now he was going to be on TV with a man whose picture he first saw on a billboard. But again, he completely surprised me by endearing himself to everyone he met with a hug and a grin a mile long. He even showed my 7-year-old daughter, Cat, how to type his name on a computer with just his wrists.
The other amazing experience was when UNICEF approached me last year to see if I had any kids' pictures worthy of the front cover of the annual UNICEF State of the World's Children Report. UNICEF wanted a very specific type of photo, brand-friendly, and I had nothing they thought was suitable. But I was set to travel to Rwanda that month and I persuaded them to push back their deadline, so the kids could have a shot at taking a picture for the cover. It would be the kids' first real assignment, yet one with no guarantees.
In Rwanda, I asked the kids if they had ever heard of UNICEF. One of the kids said, "Sure, it is the building down the street." So I explained the assignment to them, and what kind of photos UNICEF was looking for, but I thought I failed miserably. After all, how do you say through a translator, "Kids, go out and take pictures which are ethnic, but not ethnic-specific, make the photos look positive, but not necessarily happy, and make them close-ups but keep them spontaneous?"
I asked my translator if I thought the kids had any idea what I was talking about, and all he could say was, "We'll see." But again, the pictures that came back were amazing. Two boys had found a UNICEF container that had washed up on the beach, which they jumped on top of, and shook hands for the camera as if they were UNICEF diplomats. And yes, not only did one of the kids' photos make it on the cover, but UNICEF published more inside and wrote about the project."
Q.: What do you hope the exhibit [of the photos, recently displayed in New York City] and everything associated with it brings?
At best, I hope for cross-communication and an appreciation between people a world apart. On one hand, I want the kids to see that they have something to communicate and share with people from around the world that is meaningful.
Remember, these are kids who thought nobody cared about them outside their world of the orphanage. So every time I send a check over for pictures that have sold, it's less about sending money, and more about saying to the kids, "Kids, you raised this with your photographs. Take heart and see yourself as a contribution, because you are one."
The other side of the coin is, I want people around the world to see these kids less as victims, which they of course are, but more as a possibility. When you get a hug and smile from Frederick, and think about the horror he has experienced, you know that by giving yourself to his spirit, even for a moment, the world can be just a little bit better for it.