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ROBERT LYONS

October 19 - November 24, 2001 at Paul Kopeikin Gallery, West Hollywood

by Jody Zellen


How does one depict suffering and tragedy in times of war? As I write this the US has begun to bomb Afganistan. We can imagine the images of before and after. Buildings are leveled, fires erupt, bodies are strewn. After the initial impact of the event, we are left with the destruction. We can try to picture what it was like before but will ultimately rely on images to refresh our memory. Who makes these images of war? Photojournalists are often commended for their courageous acts. Their tremendous images grace our newspapers' front pages and television screens. But after the currency of the event subsides and the devastation is cleared away, what happens to the people who remain?

Robert Lyons is a photographer who has spend a good deal of time photographing in Africa. His interest in other places began when he was young. He always knew he wanted to be a photographer and although he got his MFA in photography from Yale he spent many years working as a conservator of nineteenth and twentieth century works. When he felt he was becoming better known as a conservator than as a photographer, he decided to focus on his commercial career. As a photojournalist he took many trips to the African continent. In the 1980s and early '90s his work was concerned with the culture of Egypt. He made seductive color images that portrayed its people as well as exotic places. He was welcomed by the people he documented and even befriended the writer Naguib Mahfouz, who later collaborated with Lyons on his first book, Egyptian Time, in 1992. In 1998 Lyons worked with the poet Chinua Achebe to produce the book Another Africa. This book juxtaposed Lyons' images and Achebe's poems in order to reveal the complexity, diversity, and humanity of Africa and its people. The book was an attempt to counteract the portrayal of Africa as a place of famine, drought and civil war. Lyons' images show Africa as a beautiful place where people go about their daily lives without the constant threat of war.

Lyons began visiting Rwanda in 1994. He was sure there was another story to tell besides the one that the media reported about the genocide. He focused on the people of Rwanda, both the oppressed and the oppressors, photographing victims as well as soldiers. In addition to portraits he took on these many trips, he also documented the communities that remained unchanged (but not unaffected), as well as the ones that now exist as monuments to "man's inhumanity." Lyons' investigation was concerned with memory and mourning and how life in Rwanda related to the images. They ask: Do we want to know the subject's story? According to Jody Ranck in her introduction to Rwanda Photography and the Work of Mourning, "Robert Lyons' work is an effort to create a space to interrogate how the genocide and identity have been represented and to think about the limits of representation." It is impossible for us to not to think of the images presented by the media from 1994--the corpses, the victims--that became icons for Rwanda. Ranck continues, "Lyons' work is an attempt to search for the questions as a first task in an ethics of remembering."


“Microphone-Witness Stand,
Court of First Instance,
Genocide Tribunal, Butare,
Rwanda,” photograph.





“Agnes Mukeshima; Rescape,
Age 15, 1998," photograph.




“Alecia Kankundiye; Confessed
Perpetrator--Woman's Section, Gita-
rama Prison,May 20, 1999," photograph.




“Hands, Donata Uwimpaye; Confessed
Perpetrator--Women's Section, Gita
rama Prison, 1999," photograph.

Lyons chooses to depict the aftermath of the genocide and the suffering through black and white portraits. The images become more powerful for what they do not say. Can one really tell the difference between an image of a Hutu and one of a Tutsi? Death haunts us as an absent presence. During Lyons' visits to Rwanda he photographed people: people in villages as well as people in prisons, always trying to answer the question, what does a face signify?

In this exhibition moderately sized black and white square formatted photographs of skulls, nature, and interrogation chambers are presented alongside seemingly straightforward portraits of people from Rwanda. The portraits are of men and women, of Tutsis and Hutus, of prisoners and survivors. Often the photographs are arranged as diptychs or triptychs where the juxtaposition of images may include portraits of enemies in an attempt to study what the human face call tell us about a person's actions. Often the photographs are accompanied by descriptive captions. These captions list the offenders date of birth, profession, when arrested, as well as the place and date of the image. The reason for subjects’ purported guilt or innocence are objectively stated and almost always circumstantial. Still, most are serving life sentences. For example, a close-up image of a woman's hands casually placed in her lap, has the following caption: "Donata was accused of taking part in organized group killings; she has confessed that, "she brought people to a place where they were killed but did not take part in the killing." When asked if she could kill she answered, "if I was forced to, if I was told to kill, I would kill."

Young and old alike were implicated in the genocide and faced the consequences. Although image and caption cannot be separated, the caption confirms what the image suggests. In a portrait of a 12 year old boy who gently gazes away from the camera's lens, one wonders if we're really looking at the face of a killer. The accompanying text suggests that the boy, Boniface Mbonyizima confessed to the killing of an old woman because he heard those who confessed would be released. The text goes on to report that there are over 2100 detainees under the age of criminal responsibility during their involvement in the genocide. Similarly we learn from the caption alongside a portrait of Charles Nkurukiyinka, who was an accountant before the genocide, that he was sentenced to death for inciting others to violence. In the photograph he appears as a once confident man gazng longingly out beyond the frame. Shirtless, his shaved head cocked to the left, he seems to emanate an inner calm.

Do these images truly capture the subjects' inner being? Can we know what a person is like, what they did, from their image? Lyons' work begins to address the inherent complications in the depiction of war and its aftermath. He is not interested in presenting what we expect to see. Rather he portrays both the guilty and the innocent with equal compassion, allowing their features and gestures to speak--or not speak--for themselves.