Lucy Uwanyirigira holds a large glossy photograph, her tired eyes peering into the frame. Suddenly she gasps, her worn hand clasping her mouth, as she recognises herself in the photo.
It is the first time she’s ever seen a professional portrait of herself. A crowd quickly gathers in a cloud of red dust rising from the makeshift road.
The surrounding women smile and point at the portrait. The children, in torn, weathered clothing, stand on tiptoes, trying to steal a glance.
V. Tony Hauser, a Toronto-based photographer, hangs back from the crowd, studying the commotion. He can’t hide the wide grin stretching from ear to ear. His specialised digital camera swings back and forth over his shoulder, put to rest for the time-being.
The treasured photo is a gift from Hauser, one of Canada’s leading portrait photographers, who first visited Rwanda six months ago.
Uwanyirigira, 47, explains that the portrait has a special meaning. Neither she nor her husband, Leonidas Sebugande, has ever had a professional portrait taken.
“I am so happy because the picture is very beautiful,” she says, through a translator.
And the photo has added significance. Uwanyirigira and her husband, who were both diagnosed with HIV five years ago and live in a cooperative in the remote village of Rurenge in eastern Rwanda, see it as a way of leaving their children with a more vivid memory of their parents.
“It’s a remembrance for our children to see what we looked liked,” says Sebugande, placing a supportive arm around his wife of 24 years.
Over his 30-year career, Hauser has taken portraits for a host of Canadian luminaries: pianist Glenn Gould, environmentalist David Suzuki and former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson.
Hauser’s photographs line the walls of the National Archives of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.
But Hauser came to Rwanda in December of last year with a very different mission, to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS through the power of images.
Hauser is a member of Photosensitive, a Canadian non-profit photography group founded in 1990 by former Toronto Star photographer Andrew Stawicki and photo editor Peter Robertson. The collective is dedicated to documenting social justice issues, including homelessness, hunger and poverty.
In a project organised by Carleton University’s Rwanda Initiative, Hauser and five other Photosensitive members teamed up with local Rwandan photographers and journalism students from the National University of Rwanda to document the country’s efforts to curb the spread of HIV.
Alongside his official work for Photosenstive, Hauser snapped portraits of the local people he met on his journey, in the market or on the main street of Nyagatere, a town about two hours outside the nation’s capital.
“I sort of wandered up and down the street and photographed all kinds of people at random, nothing to do with the HIV project,” Hauser says.
Hauser was thrilled that after some initial shyness, the local people were so eager to have their pictures taken. But he couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that his subjects would never get to see their photos, to display them proudly on their walls or to show their friends and families.
He expresses discomfort with photojournalism that captures beautiful cultural images that the people themselves, never get to enjoy. “It’s almost a responsibility; if you photograph a human being, then I think that human being should have a right to see the image,” he says.
Hauser vowed to bring the portraits back to their rightful owners. At his studio in Toronto he spent his evenings and weekends tirelessly preparing large 12 by 18 prints for about 70 Rwandans. He had each photo professionally mounted so the locals would not need to have them framed.
And each picture was individually wrapped in florist’s paper so they would stay clean. Hauser was scheduled to travel to Kenya last month for another project and arranged to make this side trip to Rwanda, with help from the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi and the Canadian Embassy in Rwanda.
The embassy helped organise a reception and exhibit of Hauser’s photos in Kigali, before he delivered them to the village. Ross Hynes, the Canadian Ambassador to Rwanda, heralded Hauser’s efforts as uniquely Canadian.
“He made good, but also made a point of trying to give back,” Hynes said. Hauser’s mission was to make sure that the people captured in his photos received them.
So after the Kigali reception he made the two-hour drive east to Nyagatere, where his arrival and impromptu exhibition in a bedraggled local shop caused a bit of a commotion.
In the market in Nyagatere, Saturday afternoon shoppers stopped to watch Hauser hang the cellophane wrapped portraits inside a tiny shop with “Photo Studio” scrawled across the distressed yellow wall. The multi-purpose space clearly hasn’t lived up to its namesake in years.
“When I was here in December I saw this photo studio, but to my disappointment the owners were selling bananas. But it had great light so I took some pictures. And now it’s a motorcycle shop!” Hauser recounts.
Crowds of people start to gather around, clapping and cheering as they recognise friends and family in the photos haphazardly tacked along the foam green walls.
Egidia Mukandengo, 38, finds a couple of portraits of herself and her brother, Westen Yiriwahandi, 20, whom she has cared for since their parents died.
Mukandengo runs her hands across the glossy print, her deep-brown eyes studying each facet. She even shares a brief hug with Hauser who she thanks for profusely for the photos.
Mukandengo says her favoruite picture is the one that also includes her older sister. It is her first family portrait.
“I never believed he would bring them!” she exclaims, still clutching her new prized possession. “I will always remember Tony for this.”