Mussa Uwitonze spent the better part of his childhood in an orphanage in Rwanda.
Uwitonze’s parents were killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. And at the age of five, he was moved from a refugee camp to Imbabazi Orphanage in northwestern Rwanda.
Founded by American author and humanitarian, Rosamond Carr, Imbabazi means “a place where you will receive all the love and care a mother would give” and was home to more than 400 children.
It was at the orphanage Uwitonze, now 28, made two of his closest friends – Gadi Habumugisha and Jean Bizimana.
Like these three, many of the families of the children were killed during the genocide, while others died of diseases when they fled to Congo as refugees.
“I was a little child and then there was Red Cross that came and said the little kids have to go to the orphanage in Rwanda … So, I was picked to go to this orphanage,” Uwitonze told CNN.
In 2000, an American photographer and producer, David Jiranek visited Imbabazi.
Jiranek was passionate about working with disadvantaged children and started a nonprofit project called Through The Eyes of Children.
Through the project, Jiranek taught photography to 19 children from the orphanage. They included Uwitonze and his friends.
Armed with disposable cameras, the children learned skills that allowed them to photograph the aftermath of the genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 Rwandans.
“Everyone wanted to learn photography. So, every kid wanted to participate. The founder of the orphanage chose the most interested ones and the ones who did well in school. So that’s how we were selected,” Gadi Habumugisha told CNN.
Habumugisha, now 27, says learning photography exposed him to people and things outside the walls of Imbabazi.
“Learning photography as a kid added so much to my life because I was living in an orphanage. I would say a closed fence where we didn’t interact much with the community around us.
“But, after we’re handed cameras, we went outside into our communities and met with people, made friends and learn so much from them. So, I learned so much from this privilege of having a camera as a young kid,” he said.
Becoming the ‘Camera Kids’
David Jiranek who started the photography project died in 2003, but these camera kids who are now professional photographers are keeping it alive.
Taking on the leadership of Through the Eyes of Children, they started a project called Camera Kids, teaching vulnerable children how to use a camera.
The three men teach the basics of lighting, composition and other photography techniques. “The purpose of (the project) is to share what we have learned when we were kids to the other kids. It’s like giving the kids hope or sharing our experience with them.
“The kids that are in vulnerable situations. So we think with our experience, if we share them with others, it can help them too,” Jean Bizimana told CNN.
Bizimana, 28, says they have organized photography workshops for up to 50 immigrant and foster children across several different countries including Rwanda, the US, and Haiti.
Giving hope to the vulnerable
The photographs made by some of their workshop participants have been exhibited at the US Embassy in Rwanda and the United Nations headquarters in New York.
The Camera Kids website has curated old and new photographs from children, some of them taken with 35mm disposable cameras as far back as 2001.
Uwitonze says the team hopes to give people a voice by teaching them to take powerful pictures.
“I think as photographers we are trying to pay forward to the other kids who don’t have the voice that we didn’t have at the same age. So, being able to give people a voice that they don’t have, it’s part of a big change.”