by Sonya de Laat
I felt many things when I took this photo of human remains housed temporarily in a shed while the mass grave is reconstructed. Each time I raised my camera, I felt intrusive—intruding on people’s personal grief, something that ought to be respected, away from inquisitive/prying eyes. I also felt protected—reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s perception about picture-taking: it’s ability to relieve anxiety.
She was referring in particular to tourists who are outside of their comfort zone, disoriented; the camera is a place to hide. I felt protected from having to feel the space. This is a great negative of taking photos; not experiencing the sites as such. I was outside, looking in on affect instead. I also felt privileged. The feeling came mainly from the fact that we, the people I travelled with, were all included on our instructor’s permission form allowing us to take pictures, unlike other visitors. The sensation of privilege also stemmed from the knowledge that I would be able to take the images back with me, not only in my mind, but also in my camera allowing me more opportunities to reflect, critique and consider the memorial spaces and my own aesthetic choices at a later time. Though we had official consent from the ‘powers that be’ ethically it may still be questionable whether or not to take any photo. In this circumstance, the guides, survivors themselves, apparently had no issue with us taking photos. My impression was that they were more than willing to share knowledge about the genocide, including visual knowledge. Any ethical dilemmas I had were solely my own.
Sonya de Laat (email@example.com) is a PhD candidate in the Media Studies program in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University in London, Canada, and a Research Coordinator for the Humanitarian Health Ethics Research Group at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Canada.
Photo location: Bisesero, Rwanda