Faces in the crowd

 

One of the difficulties in coming to terms with Rwanda's recent history has been the sheer scale of its tragedy; up to one million killed in the genocide of 1994, followed by the flight of two million refugees. And all this in a country no bigger than Munster.

The replication of human pain on such a grand scale is well caught in Reunions: The Lost Children of Rwanda, an installation of nearly 6,000 small portraits of orphaned, lost or displaced Rwandan children.

This is photography with a point, not the egotistical snaps of a war-junkie photographer or the standard images of African misery that are usually served up in the West: the portraits were made as part of an elaborate tracing system established to reunite refugee children with their families.

Most were taken by Seamus Conlan, from Sunderland of Irish descent, who originally travelled to Rwanda for a routine photographic assignment. Observing the chaos of the refugee camps, as parents searched frantically for their missing children, Conlan suggested posting photographs of the unaccompanied children on billboards in public places.

Unicef and the Red Cross took up the suggestion, and asked Conlan and his American partner, Tara Farrell, to create identity photographs of all the unaccompanied children in the camps around Goma. At times, the pair were photographing up to 500 children a day, before moving on to take pictures of Tutsi children within Rwanda.

Individually, the pictures are about as interesting as the average passport photograph. But the effect of seeing so many pictures together gives the viewer some understanding of the depth of Rwanda's problems.

The images appear identical at first, but a closer inspection shows that children in Rwanda are as mixed a bunch as children anywhere. Some are cowering before the camera - is it another gun? - while others manage a giddy grin. But most are solemn or even crying, and we can only guess what horrors they have seen.

Photo-journalism has fallen on hard times of late. Competition from television has been blamed, but magazine editors are increasingly unwilling to upset advertisers by running photographs on harsh themes. At the other end of the spectrum, there is still a market for news photographs of dead bodies and suffering, but these do little to explain the context of Africa.

Conlan and Farrell's work is a brave attempt to steer a course between these two extremes. And more than 3,000 of the children have been reunited with their families.

. Reunion: The Lost Children of Rwanda is at the Gallery of Photography, Temple Bar, from August 19th to September 16th

From the exhibition The Lost Children Of Rwanda at the Gallery of Photography