“These poignant accounts and many others like them depict a country on a path toward reconciliation. The resounding voices of survivors touch us in ways that no other words could,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the Visions of Rwanda photo project. The project, displayed at the United Nations on the 15th commemoration of the genocide in 2009, the work of a photojournalist named Linda Smith, who first began visiting Rwanda in 2006. As she made subsequent visits to Rwanda, Linda founded the Through the Eyes of Hope Project (TEOH Project), a non-profit with the goal of teaching basic photographic principles to extremely disadvantaged children and educating children who are interested in learning about the children of other cultures.
|Linda as a baby with her aunt and brother
After two years on the wedding circuit, Linda went on a missions trip with a local church to Rwanda in 2006. It was her first trip to Rwanda and she felt strangely drawn to the tiny country in East Africa. She was asked by her church to photograph the entire trip. She made the most of her by photographing several communities and non-profit organizations that she visited. After ten days, she left Rwanda, knowing that she would come back one day. As soon as she returned from her trip, Linda contacted the Rwandan Embassy in Washington D.C. about displaying her photos and when they agreed, Linda organized an exhibit highlighting Rwandan life. At the exhibit, Linda established some contacts that lead her to Rwanda the following year. Linda’s idea was simple, take cameras to Rwanda and teach children how to take photos, so they could tell their stories through pictures. The following year, she organized a month long workshop with genocide orphans and HIV infected children. It was while conducting this workshop that Linda met Prossy Yohana who would eventually become her assistant in the project.
|Linda with the first group of children in Mayange.
The Kagugu School, a primary school in Kigali, sponsored the first workshop, and the children were selected by their peers based on their social needs. The workshop went so well that Linda didn’t want it to end, in fact, with Prossy’s help, the workshop continued on Saturdays while Linda returned to New York. However, Linda found it hard to stay away and returned to Rwanda within three months, at which time she introduced the photography workshop to children within the Millennium Villages Project as well as Partners in Health (PIH). By that time, word had begun to spread about the work that Linda was doing with the children and by the fall of 2007, the United Nations contacted her about working with both genocide victims and perpetrators. The six-week workshop later became the "Visions of Rwanda" exhibit, which was displayed at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City in the spring of 2009, before moving to Rwanda in 2010.
When she returned to Rwanda to coordinate the exhibit in the latter part of 2009, Linda was subsequently offered a teaching position at a university in Kigali at the beginning of 2010. She accepted the position and moved to Rwanda full-time in April 2010.When Linda moved to Rwanda, she set her sights on working with the children in Kagugu and Mayange. Beyond just conducting photography workshops, Linda wanted the project to become self-sustainable so she came up with the idea for selling passport pictures, and prints to people in the community. The students would take pictures, sell them for 500 Rwfs (approximately 75 cents) and use the money to support themselves and the project. By giving ten percent of their earnings to the project, the kids buy their own photo paper and other materials, while using the remainder for school fees, food or other necessities.
In the midst of instructing the students and getting the project off the ground, a tragedy happened that would haunt Linda for a long time. She was at a crossroads, and the future of the project began to look uncertain. The bright hope that she had suddenly turned to deep disappointment and anger…
(stay tuned for part 2)