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Feb 26, 2009

Photographer Jonathan Torgovnik documents the children and mothers of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

By Amy Van Vechten

The first time that photographer Jonathan Torgovnik interviewed a victim of the Rwandan genocide, he was immobilized.
“It was the most horrific interview of my career,” Torgovnik remembers. “I was in tears, and I couldn’t move. I was supposed to take a photo of her and her son that day, but I couldn’t. I was shaking. I asked if I could please come back and take it the next day. That’s how deeply affected I was. I knew I had to bring awareness to this issue.”
The woman, who calls herself “Odette” to protect her true identity, was one of thousands of Tutsi women raped, beaten and tortured by Hutu militiamen during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
Over 800,000 Tutsis were killed between April and June of that year, including all of Odette’s family. Twenty thousand children who were born of the rapes are now teenagers.
The trauma of the rapes still haunts Odette, who was only 13 when she was raped repeatedly. “I don’t think I’m a mother. I don’t think I’m a girl. I’m something in between,” Odette, who is HIV positive because of the rapes, told Torgovnik.
Odette hasn’t told her son, Martin, how she got pregnant. The stigma of being part Tutsi and a “child of the enemy” would destroy him, she says.
Hers is one of 30 stories Torgovnik collected over the last three years for Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape. An exhibition of the photographs is being shown at New York’s Aperture Gallery through May 7, and afterwards will tour nationally.
Torgovnik’s work includes portraits of the women with their children in and around their homes, as well as each woman’s story. He says that many have not told their children the truth about the attacks they suffered. The mothers fear the children will be rejected by society, in the same way that others who have told their secret to surviving members of their families have been disowned.
As the 15th anniversary of the conflict approaches, the women continue to struggle with isolation and trauma. But Torgovnik believes that telling their stories has helped them to cope.
“This has been the first time in my career that I felt a need to go beyond my work as a photojournalist and take action,” Togovnik, who hopes to go back to Rwanda and follow up with the children in ten years time, says. “This was a very important and very personal project for me.”

BIOGRAPHY
Jonathan Torgovnik is a storyteller in the best traditions of photojournalism. From the Rwandan genocide to Bollywood to Guatemalan elections, Israeli-born Torgovnik uses his portraiture skills to bring emotionally charged narratives to worldwide audiences.
His photographs have been widely published, appearing in Newsweek (where he has been a contract photographer since 2005), Aperture, GEO, Sunday Times Magazine, Paris Match and Stern, among others. He has participated in numerous exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe, and also has published two books: Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape came out of repeated visits to Rwanda over the past three years and Bollywood Dreams is an exploration of the Indian motion picture industry and its culture.
He is a co-founder of Foundation Rwanda, a non-profit organization that supports secondary school education for children born of rape in that country, as well as physical and psychological treatment for their mothers.
 


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