'This is Rwanda': A photography book illuminating Rwanda’s hidden treasures

Philippe Nyirimihigo and Gael Ruboneka Vande weghe, two of Rwanda’s most celebrated photographers, have documented Rwanda’s breathtaking scenery in a book titled; 'This is Rwanda: An Aerial Photography Journey'.
Island of Lake Kivu in Karongi. / Courtesy
Island of Lake Kivu in Karongi. / Courtesy

Philippe Nyirimihigo and Gaël Ruboneka Vande weghe, two of Rwanda’s most celebrated photographers, have documented Rwanda’s breathtaking scenery in a book titled; “This is Rwanda: An Aerial Photography Journey”.

The book will be on sale in Rwanda at the end of January.

Using photography as a powerful storytelling tool, “This is Rwanda” is the first in a series that will illuminate the hidden treasures not only of Rwanda, but of the continent.

Left: Philippe Nyirimihigo is the Co-­founder of and Director of Visual Content for Illume Creative. Right: Gaël R. Vande weghe, is co founder of Illume Studios and the co-author of the photo book. / Courtesy

The 288 pages photography book is a large portrait book, precisely 33 by 25 cm but each photo has captions “so that people will at least have an idea of where it is and what it is that they are looking at because it’s also artistic and may not be clear for some of them.

“The books are currently being shipped in various locations both in Rwanda and Europe where the book will be sold. We don’t want to make any promises because there might be delays in transport. As soon as we receive them, we will be announcing the sales,” Vande weghe explains.

It all began in 2012 in a helicopter, where the two photographers were flying after a client, Akagera Aviation needed their services.

“At the time, we didn’t really think about doing the book then because we didn’t have the equipment yet, but we kind of saw that there was going to be a possibility later even though we didn’t know what subject exactly, Vande weghe says.

The idea came when through the trip; they started to grasp how Rwanda looks from above.

“When we saw how truly beautiful it is” Nyirimihigo reveals, “We decided to take it to another level. I remember the defining moment was when we took pictures of the convention center just right after it was completed. That was an enlightening moment.”

The Kigali Convention Centre a few days after its official opening. / Courtesy

The pictures went viral when we posted them online so we thought it would be fair for everybody else, for Rwandans and people abroad to see Rwanda in a much bigger way.

So then, we started to think about the implementation of what it would actually take to do a book, we planned it, and we got into partnership with Akagera Aviation specifically for the book.

For years, through challenging weather conditions, including rain and haze, they flew miles to capture the magnificent and multifaceted beauty of Rwanda through their expert photography.

“The challenge was in finding the right weather to fly. We would wait for up to three months just to have the right light after the rays to really be able to capture the volcanoes. Otherwise it could be hazy, rainy and we didn’t fly in the dry season. That’s why the flight was spaced that long,” Vande weghe further explains.

Different from most photography books taken from ground, this book totally gives viewers a different perspective from the sky, and shows Rwandans their country from another angle and to show the rest of the world the true diversity of Rwanda from the first photo to the last photo.

Muhabura volcano partly hidden by clouds. / Courtesy

The 145 photographs of the book creatively highlight the country’s beauty through aerial photography. 

“You think you know your country, and have visited different places but you have no idea of the aerial view. That was really the approach and that’s what we are bringing in this book,” commented Vande weghe.

For the authors the book is for the next generation. They want to ensure that their children and future children are proud of beautiful storytelling that combines a passion for the art of photography and a passion for the land they call home. The perceptive collection of their photographs is also important for documenting Rwanda today, for the generations to come.

“One of the other important thing for us,” Nyirimihigo explains, “was that when you look at the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, a lot of documentation in this country was destroyed so the idea was also to start archiving by capturing the unique beauty of the country. We had the chance to show where it is now and hopefully we will get the opportunity show it again in the future.”

That ties really well into legacy, what are we leaving behind for ourselves, our kids, but also for the generation that brought us into this country and the leadership, even as a country deciding that we need helicopter services and that in the end opened us to capture the country in a different way. It’s also a homage to all those people that participated in this cause.”

For Gael, this book marks the continuation of a legacy of photographic archiving started by his father and it is also a tribute to his mother’s birthplace and culture.

In 2011, he was co-author of the book ‘Birds in Rwanda’, and his fourth book co-authored with his father on Odzala National Park in the Republic of Congo was published last year.

“For us also as artists, it was important to challenge ourselves. We have to reinvent ourselves every day and it’s important to find new ways to explore. As a biologist, I have been to all the places that you will see in the book. I always had in mind that people need to know more about those places and showing them from the helicopter point of view is the most impactful,” he says.

Aerial view of Nyungwe National Park around Gisakura. / Courtesy

For Philippe, it is not only a tribute to his parents, but it marks his own personal journey re-learning his home.

The authors have known each other since 2007, both working as photographers on different continents, at the time when there were hardly any other Rwandan photographers.

Seven years ago they came back to Rwanda on a one way ticket with a passion for photography, rediscovering Rwanda and showing a different perspective and as photographers they co-founded Illume creative studios.

Illume Editions, a publishing enterprise is a sister company founded by the photographers and is set for plenty of projects, books and other products that publishing houses can do.

“The company is based in Rwanda but can be considered as homemade for exports. We should be able to cover the continent even if it takes a long time,” Vande weghe says.