The Haiti quake has been a nasty reminder that there are people in the world less fortunate than ourselves. The Haitians struggled to house and feed themselves long before last week’s disaster. They aren’t the only ones who make our lives seem excessive.
In Africa, people live with no regular supply of food or clean water. Their scars from disease and war are there for all to see and document. But it’s one thing to record their suffering and quite another to build relationships with them and communicate their feelings to a blithe Western world.
Starting this week, the Halsey is exhibiting two shows by two talented photographers, Jonathan Torgovnik and Heather McClintock. Torgovnik, who was born in Israel in the late ’60s, has worked for GEO, Sunday Times Magazine, and Stern. He currently takes photographs of bigwigs like Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush (along with other political subjects) for Newsweek.
Torgovnik’s touring show is called Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape, a series of photographs and interviews with women who were sexually assaulted during the 1994 genocide of Tutsis and Hutu moderates in Rwanda. The rapists, who belonged to Hutu militia groups, were often HIV positive. The thousands of women who bore their babies have been ostracized by their families and society.
Torgovnik was working for Newsweek in East Africa when one of these women told him what she’d been through. He returned to the area soon afterward to develop a personal project that became the book (published last year by Aperture) and exhibition, Intended Consequences. One of the photos from the series won the National Portrait Gallery’s Photographic Portrait Prize in 2007.
Torgovnik’s work is deceptively quiet on the surface, lots of portraits of strong and serious individuals, scenes of village life and women with their children. It’s when you read their stories that you find out what happened to them as they were being raped and how they feel about their kids. “Some of them can’t look at their children,” says Halsey Institute Director and Senior Curator Mark Sloan. “Their eyes remind the mother of the rapist’s. Others can’t live without their children, the only good thing to come out of their world. It’s the stories that really hit you in the gut. That’s where the wallop is.”
Torgovnik is on the faculty of New York’s International Center of Photography School and co-founder of Foundation Rwanda, a nonprofit supporting secondary school education for the stigmatized “children of the militia.”
Heather McClintock has also devoted a great deal of time and effort on highlighting the plight of African people. Before she began her Innocents project she was assisting in topnotch photographic studios and doing commercial and editorial work in New York. It was an amazing experience but totally unfulfilling. “I felt like my blood was being sucked dry,” she says. “It wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I knew if I didn’t do something I was going to lose it.”
After saving up for years, she visited Northern Uganda and began “photographing everybody and understanding what the conflict is about.” A civil war has raged there for over 20 years, with an estimated 66,000 young people drafted into the Lord’s Resistance Army. Over the course of three years, McClintock has recorded the faces and feelings of Acholi tribespeople at poorly resourced Internally Displaced Persons camps.
While in the U.S., people tend to take what they have for granted — food, water, shelter. The Acholi have to do everything for themselves, although “during the conflict they were getting some food from the World Health Organization,” McClintock says, “because it wasn’t safe for them to have their own gardens.”
The photographer’s work centers on the physical effects of the war, such as scars and missing or truncated limbs. But as in Torgovnik’s work there’s always a humanity and emotional connection that makes the images more than mere documents of atrocities. “If I didn’t make a connection with the people I photograph,” McClintock explains, “if there was no trust between the two of us, I wouldn’t have a story. They wouldn’t trust me to show enough of themselves in snapshots. We’re both allowing each other to look into our souls.”
The exhibits will be accompanied by several events, including lectures and discussions. On Jan. 23 there will be a panel discussion called “The Politics of Presentation: Finding a Venue for Challenging Documentary Projects.” The panel is moderated by Sloan and includes McClintock, Torgovnik, Heather Dwyer, Tom Rankin, and Melissa Harris.