I worked in Burundi, the world’s economically poorest country, between 1999 and 2012 to promote reconciliation and peace after the genocide in the 1990s. Over the years I worked with dozens of non-governmental organizations for peace, women’s issues and environment, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with a private university.
I also got to be friends with a Swedish lawyer and businessman who had about a dozen street boy orphans living on his compound and cared for them and their education. I was one of those white people who came back repeatedly, so we became friends too.
One of the projects was to help young students establish a professional youth organisation that would train others in nonviolent thinking, conflict-resolution and peacebuilding.
During longer stays in the capital, Bujumbura, I spent a lot of time with these young boys and girls, in particular, eight female university students and the former street boys. We went to the beach, played football and music, took pictures and learned a lot about each other.
And we laughed a lot! And together with Somalia/Somaliland (1977-1981 and 2014), this is where I have acquired whatever I know about that magic, promising continent.
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Here is Inès Mizero – at the time studying business administration and being a member of the national dance company – at the make-up moment in-between two shooting sessions, sunlight reflecting from the mirror unto her beautiful, powdered face while the locals watch the scene from a distance.
A good photo often comes out of not sitting or standing for the photographer.
Vianney – former street boy
In spite of being a victim of the genocide in the 1990s in Burundi and being an orphan, there were no limits to this young man’s joie de vivre. I took lots of pictures of him and friends in the compound and many have asked whether they were shot in a studio.
They were not. I took them all spontaneously a Sunday afternoon at the ground terrace under the roof of the 2nd floor. White walls hit by the tropical sun’s warm rays served as the only equipment.
Simplicity and spontaneity often, in my view, make better photos than high-tech filled studios in which a young man like Vianney would hardly feel comfortable, be himself and be present.
Arielle Kwizera had never stood before a camera and was visibly shy when I took the first few test shots. But she quickly got used to it as we did more- and revealed an amazing natural talent.
A short time after, she registered to participate in the Miss Burundi Contest. And became Miss Burundi 2011! Here my raw pictures and the story at CNN’s iReport. That title took her to many places and opened doors to her. At her public figure Facebook page, she gathered some of the photos we did together and wrote “Everything is possible to whoever believes. I have a dream”.
I’m very happy to have contributed a little to her life path. With my camera.
Bujumbura Beach Boys
The street kids loved to go to the beaches of Lake Tanganyika, for instance, Saga Plage. Some took a guitar, others a football. And some turned it into a fashion show…
Sisters Cynthia and Fiona
Here is Cynthia Ndongozi, a student of medicine born in 1986. She stood in the doorway of a simple hut in the countryside, torrential rains from dark clouds on an otherwise blue sky. Thus the blue lips.
Most of the young women had no experience of being photographed. I ask them to decide the place, their clothes, make-up, if any, and let them decide how they wanted to appear and express themselves. The moment I – a muzungu = white man – would begin to tell them what to do and how to act, the natural beauty and spontaneity would be gone.
I’ve never fancied “model photography” with its present tendency to making women appear cool/hard, sexy and superficial. These boys and girls were no models and therefore I tried to portray them as human beings in a natural way.
I took pictures in Burundi – also other people, villages, and the incredibly beautiful landscape – to show the strength and pride of people I met. I see my photos as a kind of counter-images to the typical Western image of Africa as a lost, dark, hopeless continent. War, corruption, AIDS and poverty only makes up a fraction of today’s African reality.
Many foreign photographers pay those they take pictures of a one-time honorarium and may then sell their works at many times that honorarium in fashionable galleries back home. I consider that a colonial attitude, not fair trade.
Therefore, we wrote a contract that entitled each to get 50 per cent of what I sell – a small contribution towards their study fees and assist them in getting attracted to do business instead of just become a housewife in a society with a lot of sexual violence.
Here is Cynthia’s sister, Fiona. She studies business management – a modern city girl with a mobile phone in her hand. Oh, what contrasts!
This young woman came and went – just like that – in a house I stayed in for some time. When she saw some of the pictures I had taken, she asked whether I would also take some pictures of her – and we immediately walked around the various rooms and found this fabulous light falling through the window on an armchair.
There were no preparations, except getting that shadow of her profile on the back of the chair right. Sometimes, spontaneous moments provide far the best results.
As a principle, I take prints with me to give back to people who have generously given me their time and attention to my photography. Whether they say “that’s not really me” or “wow, I didn’t know I am this beautiful”, everyone is happy to be treated with respect in what I make out of it. And it is a small token of my gratitude.
The former street kids were always enthusiastic and curious: What has the “muzungu” made out of me? In some cases, they hung the print of themselves over their bed, next to Jesus. I wonder whether a photographer can ask for a finer recognition than that!
Jules and Vianney
You’ve seen Vianney above. This shot is from the same late afternoon soft light session. The photos I took in Burundi are all taken between 2008 and 2012 and I am fortunate enough to still be in contact with many of them.
Sadly, however, the country has been in deep crisis since 2015, the President insisting against all common sense and the constitution to remain in office into the 2030s. His party and paramilitary forces terrorize the people and hundreds of thousands have fled the country.
Many are having a very very tough time, so too several of my friends.
A camera is so much more than a tool for depicting reality. Sometimes it’s a bridge between people and cultures and increases mutual understanding and respect. Perhaps it’s even a tool for peace-making?
Here a few more.
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Then visit the shop and see print details and prices of all the photos you’ve seen here plus several more that are only in the shop.
Published on July 23, 2018, updated July 2, 2020