Controversy about Yunghi Kim’s Africa photos at Visa pour l’Image

A controversy has arisen between photographer Yunghi Kim and ‘Visa pour l”Image’ director Jean Francois Leroy about the removal of Kim’s Rwanda photos from her exhibition of Africa work in Perpignan (Yesterday, Sept. 13). Kim was charged by several French media (6Mois, Libération, France 3) of revisionism concerning the role the Hutus in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

After this criticism, Leroy took those photos out. The way Leroy handled this matter is not exactly laudable for its elegance. As he admits in his reply to Kim: “I wish to extend my apologies to her for the way I dealt with the situation.”

Colleagues of Kim have come to her support with cries about censorship and some french-bashing. But not only in the three French media covering her work but also in the NY Times’ Lens blog, the captions accompanying Kim’s Rwanda photos show an amazing naivety, hardly making a case for responsible or ‘objective’ journalism.

Briefly, a look at the background of the crisis: in hundred days between april and july 1994 in Rwanda, Hutus slaughtered between half a million and one million Tutsi’s (and politically moderate Hutu’s); they also raped an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women; 70% of these women turned out to have become HIV-positive. Some heart-breaking testimonials of the experiences of these women are presented in the book “The Men Who Killed Me” (by Anne-Marie de Brouwer and Sandra Hon Chu, with photos by Samer Muscati). From this and many other sources, it is clear that a massive part of the Hutu population was involved in the killings and rapes. When the Tutsi liberation army RPF invaded Rwanda and defeated the Hutu army and militias, huge numbers of Hutu’s – many of them involved in the killings – fled to Goma in neighboring Congo, to escape wrath and retaliation of the survivors.

Yunghi Kim went to Goma to photograph these Hutu refugees. But she treated the evolving crisis as if it has started as a ‘deus ex machina’, a phenomenon without a history. And I tend to consider it even more naïve to see the captions that now – 20 years (and a lot of reports, books etc.) later – accompany her photos in the NY Times Lens and in the Visa pour l’Image exhibition. To give just one example: she talks of “residents who had fled the fighting” or “fled the civil war.” That is absurd: a great many of them fled to avoid the consequences of killing Tutsi’s.

In her captions, she also talks muscularly about ‘the deadliest crisis in modern history’; we are left in the dark about when ‘modern history’ begins but surely, the refugee crisis at the end (and in the aftermath) of WW2 in Central and Eastern Europe was deadlier. And now that I come to talk about WW2: it would shed light on Kim’s captions, if we consider an exhibition of photos of Germans having fled East Prussia or Sudetenland in 1944-46 with captions that would not mention their fate being related to the Second World War and, certainly in the case of the Sudeten Germans, without touching upon their massive support for the nazis just a few years earlier?

Kim defends herself by saying: “As photojournalist, I responded instinctually documenting life on the run, people frightened, burdened with possessions thirsty, hungry and fatigued.” But is journalism about reacting instinctually? I tend to think that journalism is about informing others – and the first demand on someone in that business is, that the informer herself is well informed.
She also says: “I explained that my role was not to take sides but to document the horrors I was witnessing.” This, again, seems to me another example of naivety: it reduces the role of the photojournalist to that of mustering emotions instead of striving to inform its audience. For more on that, see my earlier “Icon or cliché? Photojournalism and World Press Photo 2013

Other sources:
Yunghi Kim on Facebook
Jean Francois Leroy on Facebook
Magazine 6Mois’s article on Kim’s work
Libération’s article on Kim’s work
France 3, article on Kim’s work
NY Times Lens’ blog with Kim’s work
Visa pour l”Image on Kim’s work