Simon Sticker is a photojournalist based in Cologne, Germany. He visited Rwanda recently to work on a variety of photographic projects, most notably the With Our Eyes project which aims to help Rwandan people tell their own stories with fairly basic, readily available equipment. I asked Simon a little about his work, his impressions of Rwanda and how he works as a photographer.
How did you first get interested in Rwanda? What brought you here originally?
My interest in Rwanda started some time ago, mainly because of reading a lot about the genocide and the conflict. I think I was first of all interested in getting to know a bit about how life is today 15 years after it has passed through so much horror. In the end, I came to Rwanda a bit by accident as I was on assignment in Kenya for a film about the effects of climate change for a university here in Germany and had a few weeks left after wards. I flew to Rwanda and totally fell in love with the country and it’s people. At the same time the pictures I had in my mind, when I came for the first time were quite different to what I saw. I also felt a bit like that I had failed with my photography on this first trip, because I felt too influenced by the pictures and stories I had read before.
Can you tell me a little about the project you were working on for this trip? What were the aims? And who were you training, where did you train and how did it go?
The last trip to Rwanda was a bit of a reaction to my first travels to the country and my experience. I had this idea that the best way to get an inside look into the country might be, when the Rwandans tell their stories. Most people have a cellphone and many cellphones have cameras. So most of them can take pictures and everyone can share it with the world through platforms like Flickr, Facebook and similar sites. In the long run this could also work as a tool for preventing conflicts or at least show the world what is going on, as we saw in Iran earlier this year.
So based on that thought we started the project ‘With our own eyes’ and I came to Rwanda for the first part of the project, a photo-workshop for students of different studies, from medicine to journalism, in Butare. For five days I trained them in photography and storytelling with pictures and their goal for the workshop was a photo-essay about a certain topic they shot during the week. You can see all the essays on the project website. Here’s the winning project, by Joseph Hitimana, Faustin Sibomana and Alphonse Muhayimana, about the life of a poor family in Butare by as voted for by the participants.
After the workshop I worked on a couple of other stories. One is a short film adapting a concept previously tried out in the US and London by some guys, called ‘50 people, one question‘. We asked different people the same questions:
- What makes you happy?
- Where would you like to wake up tomorrow morning?
- What would you like to happen at the end of the day?
I’m editing it right now to make three short films. It’s a fun side project, we had in mind on the whole trip.
Another one was about the street kids in Butare, from where the picture above is taken. I wanted to get a bit of an inside look on their lives, beside the begging part you normally see. Also, as a bit of research for me, to maybe do a photography project with them next year. The last and biggest project beside all of this was a multimedia story about prostitution in Rwanda. This focussed on the Stop Prostitution Around Campus (SPAC) project which is run by the Medical Students Association of Rwanda (MEDSAR). It gives ex-prostitutes the chance to get out of prostitution and make a living in other ways. The whole piece will be made up of four multimedia films, covering two woman and their lives, the project and some background information about prostitution. The first one about Ancille is also already online and is embedded below.
On the last day in the country I worked on a photo-essay about the Gahanga orphanage for some friends of mine who are trying to fundraise money for this orphanage. The conditions there are really bad, no running water, no electricity. For sure, it’s heartbreaking when you see the conditions the 70 kids have to live in. You can see one of the images from the orphanage at the top of this post.
Can you pick one picture you particularly like from the trip and tell me a little more about who is in it, where you took it and why you like it?
This is really hard as I was working on so many different projects during my time in Rwanda that it’s hard to choose. Each project has it’s own stories and pictures that are important to me. I do like the soundslide of Ancille (which you can see above). I like the intimate atmosphere and the beautiful light, coming through the door. However, at the same time it shows the conditions she is living in with her daughter in quite a realistic way. And I like this combination of pictures and sound to tell her story. It was shot solely in her small hut in Tumba.
For photo equipment fans… Can you tell me what are your five must haves for working in the field?
I guess the most important thing is to be open for the people, listen to them and give them the feeling that they can trust you. For me that always feels like the most important must-have in the field. Only then you will get access to their stories and lives. And after that it does not matter too much what camera you have with you. The one you have could be fine. I mean, look at the students. They were taking their pictures with cellphones, but they got some pretty decent stories told.
It’s always nice to have great equipment with you, but for a good picture it’s about something else. The tools you bring should be more for assisting you to create your vision, I guess. But maybe a couple of tips on what it’s advisable to bring along:
- Always load batteries, clear memory cards and bring enough. There is nothing more annoying as running out of power or space while shooting.
- It’s a good idea to use black tape to hide the logos on your camera, especially when you’re walking around a slum with the fanciest DSLR. Rwanda is really safe, but many people are very poor and a DSLR might be worth 6 or more years income. So dropping the interest a bit is never wrong.
What helped me a lot in communicating with the people is a pocket-sized Polaroid Pogo printer. You can connect it to your camera and print the pictures directly. The format is small, but if you have ever seen the beady eyes of a child getting the first picture of his life, it is worth it for sure.
What’s next? Where next?
I’m back in Germany right now, but plan to come back to Rwanda next year to develop the project and add some new bits and pieces. The concepts are not 100% fixed yet, but it will be a lot about making me a bit more non-essential for the project in Rwanda. Before that there might be a some other trips, maybe to Cuba, but first of all I have a couple of projects here in Germany to get done.
Thank you very much Simon. I’m looking forward to seeing more from you in 2010.