Story and photos by Sam Guzman
As a young child growing up in an orphanage after his parents were killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Jean Bizimana had little experience with photography, either behind or in front of a camera. When he was 8 years old, he learned how to take pictures with Through The Eyes of Children, a program that helps unsafe or vulnerable kids learn photography and videography.
“The objective of the project was not to turn us into photographers but it was to give us a way of forgetting our past experiences of the genocide, war and conflicts that we had been through,” Bizimana said.
Inspired by his experiences of telling stories with a camera, Bizimana became a photojournalist. (You can view his work here: https://www.biziphotos.com/about)
Now, at the age of 32, Bizimana is a part of a mentorship program sponsored by VII Academy that was created to help promising young photographers from the Majority World, who may not have access to formal photography education, hone their skills. The program, which started with a site in Sarajevo, opened a new location in Arles in February.
Gary Knight, co-founder of VII Academy, says one of his goals for the program is “to ensure that very well trained, ethically based, young photojournalists are out there in the world, calling truth to power, holding the political classes and the corporate classes to account on behalf of the public.”
As a photojournalist, Knight traveled the world from 1988 to 2017, shooting conflict zones in Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 2001, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, Knight and other photojournalists joined together to create the VII Photo Agency. Later, as the digital revolution changed the revenue models for media, they formed the VII Foundation as a way to support photojournalism and make it sustainable.
Knight brought the academy to Arles because, as the host of the annual Rencontres d’Arles photography festival and the home of France’s most prominent photography school, it already had a dialogue around photography.
“I think what we can do here is bring a little more diversity to the conversation,” Knight said.
VII Academy, the educational wing of the VII Foundation, provides tuition-free training in visual journalism. In the mentorship program, mentees undergo training for five weeks, working on such concrete skills as sequencing photos, editing photos, working with curators and writing pitches for stories. Workshops are taught by seasoned veteran photographers from around the world who understand the demands and challenges of shooting in marginalized communities.
Bizimana said in Rwanda, most people don’t understand the power of photography to tell important stories.
“When you grow up in a country where no one understands photography, it’s kind of challenging,” Bizimana said. “Everything we learned from YouTube. We don’t have photography schools, we don’t have photography libraries.”
The Through Eyes of Children program, however, gave him the opportunity to learn. The organization lent him a camera, and he learned basic techniques. This was the spark that he needed to want to become a photographer.
As he developed his photography skills, he sold his photographs to help pay for his studies, as well as raise funds for some of the children from the orphanage. Since there are no photography schools in Rwanda, however, he studied computer science at university.
Bizimana attended photography workshops to deepen his skills. In 2015 he joined Gary Knight’s Canon Masterclass, a program on how to use professional cameras to make stories. That’s when he started his career. He joined his local news group, IGIHE, in Rwanda. He quit after he realized their style didn’t give him the creative freedom he craved.
Bizimana was a part of the first cohort of mentees to study at the new location in Arles, which is based in a renovated salthouse near the banks of the Rhone River. His cohort included young photographers from Nepal, India, Kashmir, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as two from the United States.
Ali, 30, is another mentee in the program. He was born in Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. He started doing photography in 2013, shooting the impressive landscapes around him. But he eventually stopped.
“It might be a paradise for outsiders, but to us, it’s a hell,” said Ali, who has been documenting conflict in the region and didn’t want his full name used.
For the past 10 years he’s shifted his focus from the places to the people.
“My people always fascinate me, because they have stories to tell,” Ali said. To him, conflict brings anxiousness and misery, and he wanted to cover that, not just beautiful scenes. His work focuses on the harsh realities in his home country,
Another mentee, Joshua Irwandi, from Jakarta, Indonesia, described the program as a retreat.
“I get to rest my head a little bit and then actually look at people’s work. I mean, just looking at this exhibition here, you know, like, how do people see things?” Irwandi asked. (You can view Irwandi’s work here: https://www.joshuairwandi.com/)
Knight said he encourages the mentees to think big. “What I hope to encourage them is to be… more ambitious, and more confident about the space that they occupy in the media.”
He also hopes that the relationships they formed in the mentoring program endure.
“Now they have very strong friendships,” Knight said. “They have a global community.”
Bizimana, who participated in a VII Academy program in his home country, hopes that VII Academy will return to Rwanda, so that others can learn like he did. He hopes to teach as Knight and other professors have taught him at the academy. That’s why he wants to be a journalist, he said, so he can give back to others.
Because Rwanda has little tradition of photojournalism, the 1994 Rwandan Civil War and other news in the country has mostly been photographed by international photographers who helicopter in to record the story and then leave.
“My goal is for people to say, ‘Oh we have this professional photographer in Rwanda, now we don’t need to send someone else. Because he’s there and is on the same level.”