After 19 Years, Vermont Photographer Returns To Rwanda To Capture Its 'Many Narratives'

Jul 9, 2015

Vermont photographer Jean Luc Dushime grew up in Rwanda, but he and his family fled the country after the 1994 genocide. When their new home in the Congo also exploded into war two years later, they walked for six months across the Congolese jungle. Eventually they made their way to Vermont.

Recently, Dushime went home to Rwanda to face his past and to remember his childhood before the conflict. And he took along his camera.

Photographs from that journey are on display in an exhibit called A Global Connection that is now up at Burlington City Arts and Dushime joined VPR to talk about the experience.

Why did he go back to Rwanda?

“I was on this personal journey of trying to understand who I am and where I come from. And photography, in a way, became a tool to help me heal. Because when you grow up until [13-years-old], I had a normal childhood, I was not very much aware that my country had a violent past, and then in 1994 everything exploded. Suddenly the country was divided, people were killing each other.”

“After moving to Vermont, I struggled to deal with that reality in terms of [moving] to a place that was quiet, and then all the past [starts] catching up with you. But, I realized there was no way I was going to be an adult unless I really faced my own past in my own way and I think that’s what I wanted to capture through this exhibition, and the photography was really not for anyone else, it was for me, trying to create a new narrative that was mine. Not from my parents, not what the government is saying … that’s very, very important that we get it out, because that’s the only way we can prevent what happened back then [from] happening now.”

On how he tried to capture Rwanda through photography

This photograph of Dushime's grandmother was one of the many he captured while visiting his home country of Rwanda.
Credit Jean Luc Dushime

“I was more interested in capturing something that symbolized the death and also the resurrection, in terms of people figuring out how to move on. But also, to show that it’s really hard to move on. When I got back, people asked me if I found closure. Closure really doesn’t exist; all of us are learning to cope with the past, and especially my generation because we were very young, and now we have grown up and getting married and starting to have kids. What are we going to tell our kids? And for me, it was clear in my mind that I don’t want to tell things that I don’t understand, that I really want to have a first-hand experience as an adult so I can tell my kinds, this is what I saw, so I was interested in capturing something that has so many layers, because that’s what Rwanda is. So that’s why the pictures, they mean something different to different people.”

On the response to Dushime’s photographs from other Rwandans

“… A lot of people live outside of the country, so a lot of people reach out to me to thank me, telling me that in a way, they were able to reconnect with this country they left a long time ago.”

"And also trying to reconnect the past and the present, because I think that was something I discovered, that the past changes. Maybe what I knew was just a fabricated memory."

“Also, for me, it was my desire to challenge that when you live outside [Rwanda] for a long time, you have this romanticized memory of this country you left a long time ago that’s very, very important for you to go and walk the land before you have an opinion. And also trying to reconnect the past and the present, because I think that was something I discovered, that the past changes. Maybe what I knew was just a fabricated memory.”

Dushime took two trips to Rwanda. Are photos from both journeys in A Global Connection?

“When I went the first time, I didn’t take a camera, because I really wanted to be present, to absorb the reality and the first time I got out of the plane, I got on the bus and the bus started moving and I opened the window and I just put my hand out, just to feel the air. I was back home after 19 years.”

"When I went the first time, I didn't take a camera, because I really wanted to be present, to absorb the reality ..."

“The second time, I was shooting with a medium format film camera, because film allowed me to slow down and really think. I was more interested in capturing something that I really put a lot of thought into.”

On what he hopes comes out of his exhibition

“What I want people to see is there are so many narratives in my country. Rwanda existed before 1994 and I think that for me is the strongest message, that we keep building on … those that were there before. I think that was the biggest accomplishment for me; that was able to challenge my fear and my trauma to look back.”

"1994 was a major, major event in our history, but it was not when the country was born and I hope that people see these hills have been around for a long time and they will be around when we are gone."

“I have, I think, healed from it in a way, now I can talk about it without anger and frustration. 1994 was a major, major event in our history, but it was not when the country was born and I hope that people see these hills have been around for a long time and they will be around when we are gone.”

Dushime’s photographs will be on display at the Roth Gallery at Burlington City Arts through September 19.