Lost Children of Rwanda
'Lost Children of Rwanda' by Seamus Conlon was at the Gallery of Photography, August - September, 1997
Review by Martin McCabe
Seamus Conlon's Lost Children of Rwanda pursues the paradigm of documentary reportage which historically has been linked to social reform agendas and meliorism. In this instance, the photographer seeks 'to open the eyes' of the viewer to distant tragedies and their aftermath in Central Africa. The first image to greet the viewer at the entrance to the gallery can only be identified as 11262/I023, a large colour photograph of an African child. For all intents and purposes 5000 + 'mugshots' of African children line the inside of the Gallery. Impressive purely at the level of their visual impact. Each face uniformly photographed and laid out regularly all around the inside of the gallery. Framing, exposure, colours and scale all maintained throughout. There are no names, no other details, just faces and identification numbers. This may be a strategy to impress upon the viewer the numbers involved and the scale of the problem. However the overall effect negates the individual images and goes some way to deindividuate the subjects. They are just a sea of faces. Conlon may have intended to put faces on the numbers but ends up putting numbers on faces. At the same time there is a long tradition of images of 'black babies' on collection boxes outside churches, in schools throughout Ireland. This seems to go unacknowledged.
This complacency compromises the intentions of the project but also impinges on issues related to the ethics and politics of documentary. These images come from a project to aid the ICRC and UNICEF to reunite 'lost' unaccompanied Rwandan children. The text in the gallery states: "The photography shown [here] is a testimony to the plight of unaccompanied children everywhere and to the unacceptable violation of children's rights that war causes". Parents see pictures of their lost children and are united with them. On these terms within the context of Rwanda, it is laudable and relatively successful project. But what can be said about it now that it is mounted in this manner in a gallery of photography? The currency of documentary photography has always been that the meaning resides within the image itself, that it is capable of 'showing what the world is really like'. However this is a pertinent example where such notions are untenable. The idea of documentary as a particular form that has been naturalised within particular forms, texts and traditions remains almost unassailed by critique. The fact that the traditions of criminological and child photography can be traced in these particular images nevertheless fails to undo their use and efficacy in facilitating their identification. But what must also be considered is the institutional and cultural contexts in which the work is situated and the audience that is addressed. Parents seeking their separated child in Rwanda is quite different from the Irish gallery context.
The social context for a reading of these images is important to outline as it impinges in many ways on how they may be interpreted. Media panics over the so-called 'flood' of African immigrants into Ireland combined with a problematic and complicated history of benevolent Irish missionary work in Africa all work within a particular economy of images and discourses which regulate and delimit how these particular images can be understood. Another set of contextual frames further compound the issue. Throughout all of the literature in the exhibition, Conlon is presented in nothing less than heroic terms. There is nothing new in this. Life magazine, one of the main sponsors has always traded in a mythology of the photographer as a truth teller, the man (and it almost invariably is a man), who sees clearly and captures the 'reality' for all of humanity to witness. The accompanying text by David Friend the Director of Photography and New Media at Life magazine is breathtaking in its grandiose gestures and inflation of the role of the photographer as intrepid explorer and hero: "Conlon had a simple notion; to capture the face of every Rwandan war orphan on film" and "Of 6631 displaced -depicted hundreds were reunited... Conlon, in effect, had taken documentary photography to an entirely new level by using images as visual distress signals to aid his subjects directly and alter their fates". It is precisely the unacknowledged power and privilege that a white European photographer has to change the fates of so many that makes this exhibition seem misconceived. Claims are not only made for the heroic humanitarianism of the photographer ("Through his lens, Conlon watched frantic parents jump aboard the vehicle searching for lost loved ones. Suddenly [his] sense of helplessness evaporated in a flash of inspiration...") but also his technical innovation. For instance, Friend enthuses: "relief tents were used to diffuse the harsh African sunlight and [Conlon] deliberately overexposed his photographs by one half stop so as to bring out the subtle features that make a child more recognisable. The result is a series of bright portraits muted in colour each face bearing an almost angelic glow". The fact that Kodak, the other sponsor, allegedly used in the past only white skintones as the reference for their film emulsions goes unnoticed i.e. they are not designed to image black people accurately. Conlon, possibly unconscious of this, struggles with his materials. This type of work is above all else well meaning and liberal in its agenda , but is so mired in an ill-considered and contradictory discourse that its outcome in this context is counterproductive.
The text in the gallery states that the children were so traumatised by what they had witnessed that some were left "unable to communicate". This exhibition does not change that because it continues to 'see' them as just... others.
In conclusion, a curious aspect of the exhibition was that it was run in tandem with three new emerging photographers in the gallery upstairs under the heading Portraiture and Identity. With this in mind the show tells the viewer little or nothing about those in front of the camera but a lot more about those behind it.