Art as an inspiration
07 December 2007
In February 2006, internationally renown photographer Jonathan Torgovnik travelled to Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda for Newsweek magazine to cover the 25 years of AIDS through the eyes of UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot. During the Rwanda leg of the visit, Jonathan met Margaret, who not only became the subject for his pictures—and part of the Art for AIDS collection--but an inspiration for his life. In a special interview for the three-part series on Art for AIDS, Jonathan tells http://www.unaids.org/ his story.
Tell us about what happened in Rwanda
Well, in February 2006, I was on assignment for Newsweek in East Africa for the special issue on the 25 anniversary of AIDS. With Geoff Cowley (Newsweek health correspondent), we travelled through Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanada – with Peter Piot most of the time, following him, as the story was looking at 25 years, through Dr Piot’s eyes and life. In every country we went to, we also visited people living with HIV. In Rwanda, during one of the interviews, we met a woman named Margaret. She is a genocide survivor who was raped during the fighting and as a result contracted HIV. We also learned she had a child as result, and that probably, he too was living with HIV. Margaret took us through what had happened to her. Frankly, this was the most horrific interview I had ever heard. The level of brutality and sexual violence she went through was unthinkable, not to mention the memory of the slaughter of all her family. There were just so many multiple levels of trauma that she had gone through, and is still going through 13 years later.
What did this prompt you to do?
I found her story incredible and wanted to investigate more into the issue of children being born from rape, and what happens to them. So I started to investigate and found out that an estimated 20,000 children were born from rape during the genocide. I decided to go back several times and chronicle these women and their children’s stories through photography and words, to give them a voice. Sixty percent of women I interviewed had also contracted HIV from their rapists. And because of all the stigma attached to rape and HIV, these women and their children are often completely ostracised from community. All the women I have spoken to—about 30 now—feel the future for their children is very bleak. I asked them what would they do for these children if they could do something and they all underlined education as key. So I decided to start a foundation to raise money to pay for secondary school education for the children.
We raise money by publicising the stories, the chronicles of these women – placing them in mainstream magazines throughout the world and asking for donations. We have had some extremely generous donations after articles appeared in Germany, Spain and the UK. The response from the German public was particularly big. Leveraging the media and publishing the stories – giving the women a voice – works in all ways. We are reaching millions and so creating awareness and then mentioning the foundation with the hope that readers will send in donations.
We understand one of your Rwanda portraits has just won a big prize?
Yes, the annual UK National Portrait Gallery portrait prize! It’s an open submission, so I submitted some work and out of 7,000 one of the Rwanda portraits won first prize. It’s wonderful for me as a photographer but again here we have another opportunity to create awareness and to get the stories out there. Following the prize for example, the BBC picked the story, which helped leverage it some more.
How has your Rwanda experience changed you?
This project has changed my life – I have never worked on a subject or project where I have felt such a sense of mission, on the artistic side and humanistic side. And I have become much more interesting in covering other issues like this. Doing the trip with Dr Piot and hearing his stories and life history, hearing how dedicated he is to AIDS, really inspired me to continue working on this subject.
A selection of photographs by Jonathan Torgovnik from the Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania mission are showcased in the UNAIDS ART for AIDS collection.
Visit the Foundation Rwanda web site
Read - More than words: ART for AIDS
Listen to interview with sculptor Mike Munyaradzi
Read feature story - Contemporary African art and AIDS
Read feature story - Secretary General visits UNAIDS, Geneva