The Day I Became Another Genocide Victim

Each of these posthumous portraits forces us to imagine the life story of one dead person out of the one million victims of the Rwandan genocide.  They humanize people who would otherwise be forever dehumanized. We can never comprehend one million dead people. But we can imagine the life of that little boy, carrying his doggy backpack, who was clubbed to death or dismembered by a machete-wielding perpetrator.  We can know him. He lived at the very center of his own life story until the day he was murdered.

While working in Rwanda on my ongoing genocide landscape project in April/May 2018, news broke about the discovery of new mass graves in Kabuga Village 24 years after the genocide.  I went to the excavation site before continuing to the landscape locations. For days I was haunted. I was troubled by the vast piles of unidentified crumpled clothes and rags.  I realized I needed to separate the items and consider them individually, as each was a person with a life story. I returned to the excavation site to photograph the victims’ belongings.  As each piece was carefully laid out, still damp from the earth, I found myself imagining that person’s story. I wanted the portraits to reflect the cross-section of the over 3,000 victims thought to be buried at the site.  However, most the adults had been hacked to pieces by machetes and all that remained were rags. Consequently many of the portraits in this series are of children’s clothes, shoes and underwear.

While I have shown 20 portraits on this website, the entire project is comprised of 100 images. I was haunted by the words of a genocide survivor as I worked. She told the story of how she survived by pretending to be dead lying beneath a pile of bloodied dismembered bodies when she heard a killer say, "I just need one more and I'll have 100.” That comment is the basis for this series. All, but the last image in the series, are individual portraits. The final image is simply the grey background.

My work attempts to challenge the universal fatigue that has set in around the genocide narrative, in large part by engaging the viewer’s imagination.  I hope this series does that. In making this work, I thought a lot about the words of French philosopher and art historian, Georges Didi-Huberman, "Let us not invoke the unimaginable, but instead, force ourselves into that difficult place of imagining."  

Thank you for imagining with me.

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I am grateful to The Aegis Trust and the staff at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda, for their help with research, logistics and identification of critical locations throughout Rwanda. This project would not have been possible without the support and cooperation of the CNLG (National Commission for The Fight Against Genocide) officials in Kabuga Village.