When Photography Refuses To Reveal All The Facts…


General Photography

One of these people is a survivor of the genocide in Rwanda, the other one is a confessed genocidaire (who admitted to killing an old woman, his neighbour, because he “heard that those who confessed would be released”). But how can you tell which one is which?

These two images are taken from Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide, a book by photographer Robert Lyons (Disclaimer: Robert and I are close friends; I owe parts of the following to the many discussions I had with him). Intimate Enemy contains photographic portraits of survivors and perpetrator (genocidaires) of the genocide, along with a lot of text that describes what happened, and actual testimonies.

The reason why Robert took all the photographs in b/w is simple: If he had used colour film it would be easy to tell the genocidaires apart from the survivors because of the colours of their prison uniforms (Robert spent large amounts of time inside prisons, and many of the tightly cropped head shots resulted from the fact that wider shots were impossible given there were so many other prisoners in the same room). I wager most photojournalists would have either used colour film or shown the environments of the portrayed. And, indeed, at an opening of the Rwanda work a very respected photojournalist came up to Robert to yell at him, because he had made survivors and genocidaires indistinguishable.

I suppose we’re all a bit guilty of the discomfort caused when we are presented with a portrait of someone that refuses to reveal the full amount of information. A very well known recent example is provided by the German movie Downfall. Many reviews complained that the movie made murderers look human (here’s an example). For example, I read a review that noted that one of the many side characters, an SS doctor, who in the movie is shown as a somewhat heroic figure, saving the lives of people, in fact had been responsible for horrendous crimes (which the movie doesn’t mention).

We need to realize, though, that an SS doctor would find nothing wrong with mercilessly contributing to the killing of Jewish prisoners while acting like an actual doctor with German, “Aryan”, patients. Mass murder and genocide - along with terrorism - are usually based on exactly such distinctions, which make absolutely no sense for the sane mind. This is something that is extremely important for us to realize. Furthermore, as studies have shown, many (if not most) of the people who contributed to the Holocaust were “ordinary men” (see the chilling Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning).

Of course, seeing an SS doctor portrayed as a hero in a movie makes for uncomfortable viewing (even though one would have to live under a stone to assume that someone high up in the SS was not involved in any crimes). In the same fashion, not knowing how to categorize the people portrayed in Robert’s Intimate Enemy makes us feel very uncomfortable (and it made that photojournalist yell in Robert’s face).

But it’s exactly this discomfort that we need to experience in order to learn something. If monsters commit grave crimes, we are safe - because we are not monsters. If ordinary men and women commit grave crimes, we are not safe - because we are ordinary. This, of course, doesn’t mean that we are future genocidaires, but it does mean that we could be. And I think it’s that aspect that the many critics of the movie Downfall were missing (or maybe they didn’t, and it was simply too uncomfortable). In fact, showing Hitler as a human being does not reduce his guilt or responsibility for the murder of millions of innocent people, it actually increases it.

This is also the idea behind Robert’s Rwanda work that the aforementioned photojournalist ignored when he demanded to know why genocidaires and survivors weren’t easily distinguishable: They are not because Robert demands us to develop more of an understanding of human nature (and, of course, working on such an understanding has nothing to do with a willingness to excuse genocide).