Capturing courage through the lens

Ray Tollson Look in Rwanda

Ray Tollison is a photographer based in Fort Collins, Colorado. He visited Rwanda recently to work with World Relief. During his trip Ray focused on portrait images and he published a selection of those photos on his Flickr account. They’re some of the best images of Rwanda that you’ll find on Flickr. Following on from Simon Sticker’s interesting insight into his photographic work in Rwanda, I decided to ask Ray about his work and his take on working in Rwanda. Here’s what he had to say,

After several years of learning about Rwanda, reading about Rwanda and watching movies about Rwanda, I finally had a chance to visit for the first time in March, 2008.

It was with Think Compassion, a small non-profit that provides scholarships to Rwandan students. The goal was to document some of the students’ stories. I was there for about two weeks and met some of the most incredible people. With those incredible people came powerful stories. Some stories were so horrific that it was hard to imagine they could be true – or should I say that I did not want them to be true. As soon as I boarded the plane in Kigali I was already dreaming of when I could return.

ray tollson friends in rwanda

Well, that day was October 30, 2009, and the experience was amazing. This time, I was traveling with World Relief to take pictures of development projects. These truly life-transforming projects included: Savings for Life, an opportunity for the poor to save securely and consistently; Mobilizing Youth for Life, a movement to combat AIDS through abstinence and marital faithfulness; and Ikirezi, an agricultural project that empowers widows and orphans to grow geraniums and harvest essential oils for perfumes.

At every stop, we listened to stories of perseverance, determination and – above all – faith. But the most remarkable story came on our final day – the story of Bernice, which you can see in the slideshow below. Bernice quickly became the most inspirational woman I’ve ever met.

Bernice by Ray Tollison

Click on the image above to view the story of Bernice as an “online e-book”. Andrea Kaufmann wrote the words while Ray contributed the photos and pulled the design together.

In addition to the piece about Bernice, Ray has also uploaded a number of his favourite photographs from the trip to the Portraits from the field e-book. Click the image below to watch the full slideshow.


As for photographic equipment, here’s what Ray takes into the field along with a few tips on how to use it all. Much like Simon Sticker, he is of the opinion it’s more about how you interact with the people than how expensive your camera is,

The camera I use the most in the field is my Canon 5D Mark II with my 24-70 lens, with that I always have a back-up dSLR, an assortment of lenses, lots of batteries and memory cards. I think the last two, batteries and memory cards, are the things I always worry about the most…without those it does not really matter how great you equipment is. A good point and shoot is always nice to have as well, you can get some great candid shots just “shooting from the hip.”

Nice equipment is always great but when you are in the field I think one of the most important things is your willingness to interact with the people. Don’t just take a picture and go, talk to them. You may not speak the same language but you would be amazed at what you can do with a smile and some hand gestures. After taking the picture, especially when shooting children, show them the picture! The look on their face is priceless.

And what’s next?

That is the greatest thing about my job. World Relief works all over the world and so I am never quite sure where my next trip may be. I do hope to be back in Rwanda again next year with Think Compassion to continue the work with the children at the Good Shepherd Primary School.

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