November 4, 2018
History is explained through the use of stories, photographs, and facts, and the purpose of these artifacts is to spread the events that took place to those that did not experience it. In the writing of Gourevitch and Sontag, there is a focus on how humans must be aware of human cruelty through stories or photographs to understand the acts of violence that occurred throughout history. Without trying to understand history humans risk being ignorant, however, even though learning of the history we can still remain ignorant and mistake horrific aspects of history as “beautiful.”
The stories of history can be confusing as often time the reasoning behind violence remains confusing even through the lens of those that were present during the violence. This leads to the misinterpretations of violence that Gourevitch experienced during his visit to a church in Rwanda where many Tutsis had been slaughtered by Hutus. Gourevitch was aware of the history of genocide in Rwanda, but like most humans, he was ignorant in his understanding which led him to mention: “the dead in Nyarubuye were, I’m afraid, beautiful.” He found the bodies beautiful despite his knowledge that this scene had at one point been “women who had been raped before being murdered.” Gourevitch’s story is an example of when humans are confronted with an experience that we cannot relate to, we often become unable to comprehend what is in front of us. Sontag reinforces the reliability of Gourevitch’s interpretation of the dead through mentioning “to find beauty in war photographs seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins.” Sontag demonstrates that despite understanding the history, humans can not help but perceive forms of death as beautiful. This is especially evident for those that have not experienced the violence described in stories or shown in photographs.
It is imperative that humans attempt to understand the photographs or stories that are shared about war and violence, however, even with vast resources, we still cannot understand the extent of the suffering. This is also shown through Gourevitch when he mentions to his driver, Joesph, that the country of Rwanda is beautiful in which the driver replied “Beautiful? You think so? After what happened here?” Joseph was not able to see the landscape as Gourevitch was because “his brother and sister had been killed.” Gourevitch demonstrates how as an outsider, he was not able to fully understand the effect that the violence had on the people that live in Rwanda. Sontag further describes this by mentioning “as an image something may be beautiful…as it is not in real life.” The stories and photographs present humans with a brief moment which can lead to many emotions, even perceiving the events as “beautiful,” even if in actuality the piece of history represented was far from beautiful.
Gourevitch and Sontag both share stories through writing and photographs, with the understanding that humans may never understand the full extent of suffering portrayed in their work. However, Gourevitch presents the difficulty of understanding the Rwandan Genocide even from the view of a soldier of the Rwandese Patriotic Army, Sergeant Francis. Sergeant Francis attempted to describe the killings by telling Gourevitch how this happened “but the horror of it— the idiocy, the waste, the sheer wrongness— remains uncircumscribable.” Despite our inability to convey the reason for such acts of violence as the Rwandan genocide, it remains a piece of history and the stories of genocide must be recorded and shared. This idea is supported by Sontag as she similarly mentions the images “cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer.” Despite our inability to fully understand the stories and images show “this is what humans are capable of doing…don’t forget.” The stories remain important because they force humans to acknowledge pieces of history and they prevent us to forget the horrific realities that some people have been forced to endure.
In We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, Gourevitch mentions part of his reasoning for telling these stories because within a year after the genocide “the work of the killers looked just how they had intended: invisible.” It is for this reason that Gourevitch felt compelled to share “people’s stories,” including the story of Laurent Nkongoli. Nkongoil was a man who escaped genocide by going to Kigali, but even before fleeing he mentioned: “I had accepted death.” The horror of the genocide is emphasized by Nkongoli as he mentioned: “one hopes not to die cruelly, but one expects to die anyway.” It is through these quotations that humans realize that genocide is something we cannot imagine and the only people that can understand the horror are those that were directly impacted by it. Through stories and photographs, humans can grasp a better understanding that for Tutsis in Rwanda “it was not death but life that seemed an accident of faith.” The idea of accepting death is unfathomable to most humans, and it is for this reason that Gourevitch felt the need to share people’s stories. Sontag similarly mentions that photographs propose an understanding of war but those that have not experienced it are limited in their interpretation. It is for this reason that “we” cannot look away from photographs of the dead, “we is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through… We don’t get it.” Although humans can never fully understand an event we did not experience, it is vital that we are exposed to photographs or stories because without then we become ignorant.
The stories and photographs of violence must be shared not with the purpose of obtaining a moral understanding but rather to expose humans to the violence around us. Gourevitch mentions that the stories of genocide may contain moral elements for some people, but “when it comes to genocide, you already know right from wrong.” Gourevitch’s purpose behind sharing the stories are to forces humans to “understand its legacy.” In this case, the legacy is created through this stories which as needed to understand the scar that genocide has left internally in Rwanda. Through stories, there is a hope that humans can learn from the past and be aware of the violence that continues to occur, even if we do not experience it. This idea is further supported in Sontag’s writing when she mentions “the photographs are a means of making ‘real’ matters that the privileges and the merely safe might prefer to ignore.” The use of photographs forces us to acknowledge the violence and to think about what we have seen. Despite human’s inability to directly relate to the images or events described, we must feel obligated “to think about what it means to look at them.” The purpose of a photograph does not have to lead to a moral lesson but we must attempt “to assimilate what they show.” In terms of the Rwandan genocide, it is important to share stories and photographs to create an understanding of the events and the horrific violence that the surviving Rwandans endured and are constantly reminded of.
Through the use of text and pictures, humans can obtain an idea of the horror in which we hope to not repeat. These stories of violence are terrifying but necessary because humans must understand the violence that seems unimaginable in order to prevent some of our ignorance. For the Rwandans, the thought of death had been excepted and it becomes terrifying to think of the idea of war because of “how normal it becomes.” Wars are an unavoidable part of our past history which are still continuing into the present, therefore, humans must become aware of this violence through stories and photographs to try and understand the events that took place.