Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Rwanda Revisualized: Genocide, Photography, and the Era of the Witness

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Rwanda Revisualized: Genocide, Photography, and the Era of the Witness

Article excerpt

Engaging with the literature on visual representations of human suffering, being a witness, and trauma, this article discusses visual representations of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and especially the art photography of Alfredo Jaar, Robert Lyons, and Jonathan Torgovnik of the aftermath of the genocide. It explores the conditions in which photography can succeed in disrupting stereotypical political interpretations of the killings. Art photography, it is argued, may help transform the viewers from being consuming spectators into being participant witnesses who self-critically reflect upon their own subject positions in relation to the conditions depicted in the image. By discussing photography of the aftermath of the genocide, the article acknowledges the unrepresentability of genocide; by focusing on visual representations, it reflects the extent to which political space is nowadays constituted by means of images; by concentrating on Rwanda, it contributes to the necessary process of examination and self-examination in connection with the killings. Keywords: Rwanda, genocide, aftermath, photography, witnessing

**********

The memory of war, however, like all memory, is mostly local.

--Susan Sontag (1)

This article contributes to the literature on the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda by discussing three photography projects on the aftermath of the killings. Engaging with the literature on visual representations of human suffering, being a witness, and trauma, the article analyzes the art photography of Alfredo Jaar, Robert Lyons, and Jonathan Torgovnik and explores the conditions in which photography can succeed in disrupting stereotypical political interpretations in connection with the genocide. Art photography, it is argued, may help transform viewers from consuming spectators into participant witnesses who self-critically reflect upon their own subject positions in relation to the conditions depicted in the image while simultaneously being aware that an adequate response to the image is not possible. By discussing photography of the aftermath of the genocide, the article acknowledges the unrepresentability of genocide; by focusing on visual representations, it reflects the extent to which political space is nowadays constituted by means of images; by concentrating on Rwanda, it contributes to the "process of self-examination" demanded by Kofi Annan regarding the ways "w collectively remember this tragedy." (2)

The article is organized as follows: the first section discusses the representation of the 1994 genocide in photojournalism, especially the absence of images of the actual killings. Derived from this discussion, the unrepresentability of genocide and the need to focus attention on the aftermath are acknowledged. The second section sketches the presence of the genocide in recent scholarly work, autobiographical writing, literature, film, and photography and links this work to the literature on memory, witnessing human suffering, and trauma. Engaging with Walter Benjamin's famous essays on film and photography and especially with the stereoscopic effect that allegedly characterizes the word-image relationship, the third section explores the merits and limitations of the approximate in connection with visual representations of genocide. The article then zooms in on the photography of Jaar, Lyons, and Torgovnik and connects this photography with the theoretical concepts introduced in the earlier sections of the article. It is concluded that art photography can transform viewers into participant witnesses who become aware of their own involvement in the scenes depicted.

Representing the Aftermath

  You're right. I'm a photojournalist. I collect images of wars, of
  hunger and its ghosts, of natural disasters and terrible misfortunes.
  You can think of me as a witness. (3)

Current academic, journalistic, and artistic work on Rwanda, the Tutsi genocide, and the Hutu politicide of 1994 and its aftermath is part of a larger cultural movement reflecting what Annette Wieviorka has called "the era of the witness. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.