Jonathan Torgovnik was born in Israel in 1969 and graduated with a BFA from New York's School of Visual Arts. His photographs have appeared in numerous international publications, including Newsweek, Aperture, GEO, Sunday Times Magazine, Stern, Smithsonian, and Paris Match. Torgovnik has had numerous solo and group exhibitions in the United States and Europe, and his photographs are in the permanent collections of museums such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.
Torgovnik is the first prize recipient of the 2007 UK National Portrait Gallery's Portrait Prize and the recipient of the 2007 Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography. The Open Society Foundations recently awarded him a Documentary Photography Project distribution grant. He has received awards from Picture of the Year International, American Photography, Graphis, Communication Arts, and Photo District News. Torgovnik's book Bollywood Dreams, an exploration of the motion picture industry and its culture in India, was published in 2003 by Phaidon Press.
Torgovnik, a contract photographer for Newsweek since 2005, is on the faculty of the International Center of Photography School in New York.
In February of 2006, I traveled to East Africa to report on a story for Newsweek to mark the 25th year since the start of the AIDS epidemic. While in Rwanda, I heard the testimony of Odette, a survivor who was raped during the genocide, contracted HIV, and had a child as a result of the rape.
Later that year, I decided to return to Rwanda on my own accord and work on a personal project about women who were raped during the genocide and had a child as a result. I returned several times over the next two years, uncovering more details of the heinous crimes committed against these women. The mothers of these children, many of whom contracted HIV, have largely been shunned by their communities and their few surviving relatives due to the stigma of rape and “having a child of a militiaman.”
Thousands of Rwandan women were subjected to sexual violence perpetrated by members of Hutu militia groups. Some Tutsi women were attacked by individual militiamen, others were subjected to gang rape. Some were forced to witness the torture and killing of their entire families. Many were told, “You alone are being allowed to live, so that you may die of sadness.”
One victim, Sylvina, age 34, described her experience: “I cannot really tell you how many men came to rape me. All I saw was that four months later, I was pregnant. I tried committing suicide twice. I live with HIV/AIDS as a legacy of the genocide.”
More than a dozen years later, the legacy of genocide haunts these women, as they still struggle to restart their lives. They face numerous challenges: the stigma of rape, discrimination against them because they are HIV positive, and the difficulty of living in a community that has not yet dealt with the trauma and atrocities experienced during the genocide.
Some of these women have been unable to fully accept their child because they associate their son or daughter with the brutality perpetrated upon them. Others have accepted their child, but, in some cases, the mother’s decision to keep the child has caused her own family to ostracize her. In Rwanda, where extended families form the backbone of community life, such alienation can be devastating. The mothers feel they have lost their dignity; they are alone, cut off from emotional and financial support, and utterly powerless. For many survivors of the genocide, their own lives have become a form of torture.
These women, the only adults in their household, face the overwhelming task of rebuilding their lives, and providing food, shelter, and school fees for their children. “Even now, getting books, a pen, a uniform for him, it’s providence,” Bernadette said about the difficulty of caring for her son under these circumstances. “Sometimes he sits here for a whole term because I have failed to get pens and books. If there is anything that tortures me, it is the tomorrow of my son.”
The international community has already failed Rwanda. When reports circulated about the genocide and brutality, political leaders turned a blind eye. Rwanda may have survived the genocide, but many of its citizens are barely hanging on to their fragile existences. It is vital that these women’s stories are heard and that the survivors of the genocide are not simply forgotten as part of yesterday’s news.
I have changed the names of the mothers and the children, and given their ages at the time they were photographed.
—Jonathan Torgovnik, February 2008