KIGALI - A weary, elderly woman stands against a wall in her tiny mud hut, huddling three of her grandchildren against her, squinting a bit as sunlight pours in through the doorway.
The faded red letters of a French acronym for Aids– SIDA – loom large on a poster above her right shoulder, almost as if they’re weighing her down.
The shutter snaps of two photographers taking her picture is the only sound that breaks an eerie silence. Mukandori, 72, waits patiently for them to finish their work.
She had 12 children, but only one is alive today.
“Some died in war, others died of natural causes,” she explains through a translator. “But when I remember the three who died of Aids, I still feel a deep sorrow,” she adds
Mukandori is a Rwandan grandmother who’s been left to raise three grandchildren as a result of having some of her own kids to a disease she calls “the scourge of all.”
On Monday, Mukandori was being photographed by The New Times (TNT) George Barya and Canadian photojournalist Steve Simon as part of a unique, unprecedented effort to teach the public about a disease that has shattered her family and so many others.
Barya was part of a team of seven local photographers documenting the impact of HIV/Aids in Rwanda.
Each was paired with a Canadian counterpart who’s targeting audiences in North America. The result of their joint efforts will consist of two-page photo essays in almost every major Rwandan newspaper and a photo exhibition in Canada.
For Barya, the photo project is a welcome opportunity to better communicate the effects the disease on both the HIV-positive people and the society at large. “We don’t show the real stuff,” he says of the Rwandan media. “When we cover voluntary counselling and testing, they don’t give you results,” explaining that the stigma surrounding Aids often prevents writers from telling the whole story.
That’s why, he says, a photo project like the one he’s been working on can be more effective than run-of-the-mill news stories in calling people to action. “Sometimes, you’ll see a paper, and there will be some [news articles] there, and you don’t pay to much attention about it. But when you see a photo, you can’t simply dodge it.”
“Photos show emotions of people, they show poverty and misery more directly than text,” says Anastase Shyaka, a photographer with Imvaho, who’s also working on the project.
While Barya spent the week shooting grandmothers left to raise young kids and prisoners coping with the disease, Shyaka spent much of his time focusing on the effects of HIV on prostitutes and their clients at Kigali’s main truck stop.
The idea, they say, is for each Rwandan-Canadian pairing of photographers to take on a different aspect of the Aids problem.
“Beautiful photos talk,” says Shyaka speaking in French. “People who see our work are going to understand all the [social] problems that come along with Aids.”
Barya says he wishes the public could see everything he’s seen in recent days. “People should just go into the hospital and see people who are dead and suffering from the disease.”
The TNT photographer says he hopes to bring people into the hospital through his photography, which he insists has improved over the past week as a result of working with Simon, a celebrated North American photojournalist.
For Barya and Shyaka, the week shooting alongside their Canadian colleagues has been a learning experience about both HIV/Aids and the process of doing documentary photography.
“You know, with news, you don’t care […] you just shoot. But with Steve, we talk about light, we talk about angles. It’s something very interesting,” says Barya, confident that learning Simon’s documentary style will help him in future photo essay projects.
Peter Bregg, a 40-year veteran of the Canadian photo industry paired with Shyaka, says his Rwandan counterpart now has a better eye for what makes a good picture. “He’s looking now to shoot things he wouldn’t have shot before,” says Bregg.
Both Barya and Shyaka say that working with the North Americans in a documentary setting has inspired them to push fellow Rwandans to take photography more seriously. Shyaka says he even wants to create an association of Rwandan photojournalists, which Barya says is a great idea.
“When we are together, we can talk of projects. Once a week, we can meet, and even teach the young ones, the amateurs.”
That way, Barya says, photographers in Rwanda would be able to speak out about social problems with as strong a voice as those in the West. “It’s very important to do these kinds of projects,” he says. “They send such a strong message about the people.”