What the camera saw — from Rwanda to Bollywood
Jonathan Torgovnik is one of the world’s most sought-after photojournalists. He tells Melanie Abrams how he learnt his trade in the Occupied Territories
NOT EVERY CANDIDATE applying for the bachelor of fine arts degree at the School of Visual Arts, New York, presents a portfolio documenting military activity in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. But this is how Jonathan Torgovnik’s photographic career took off in the early 1990s.
The Israeli, now 38, had amassed the body of work during his military service as a photographer in the Israel Defence Forces’ Spokesperson’s Unit. “I was sent into the field without any instruction and told to take pictures,” he says. “They just told me to go out there and shoot, but instead of a gun, I had a camera.”
The experience “made me realise that I wanted to be a photojournalist, understand the commitment involved and made me determined to pursue the profession for the rest of my career”.
Fast forward to 2007, and Torgovnik’s dreams have become a reality. Based in New York, his career is flourishing. His portraits and documentary news features appear in magazines and newspaper around the world. This month, he won the London National Portrait Gallery’s prestigious photographic portrait prize.
Prominent figures including Donna Karan and Eddie Izzard have posed for him. Since 2005, he has been a contract photographer with Newsweek and has published Bollywood Dreams, a book inspired by his travels across India.
Torgovnik’s winning image for the National Portrait Gallery prize is of a mother and her two children outside their home in Rwanda. It comes from his latest project, Intended Consequences: Mothers of Genocide, Children of Rape, a series which documents the lives of Tutsi women raped during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and their children who were born as a result. It is a subject Torgovnik cares passionately about.
“The first thing that strikes you is how beautiful they are. And then you look at the mother’s eyes. On the surface, this is a portrait of a beautiful mother and her children. Her beauty is there, yes, but there is something quiet and terrible behind that.”
The portrait was taken after Torgovnik had interviewed the mother in the photograph, Joseline Ingabira, about her experiences. “When the genocide started, Joseline was married and two months pregnant. The militia came to her village and brutally killed her husband in front of her.” Joseline was raped throughout her pregnancy, and again after she gave birth to her husband’s daughter. She eventually became pregnant with her second daughter as a result of these rapes, and also become infected with HIV. Both daughters appear in the picture with her.
The experience of his interviews with Joseline and 29 other women is still raw. “It was horrific. These strong women going through the most horrific experience, times 100. It was unimaginable. And emotionally draining to hear their experiences and how they still affect them.” Jonathan Torgovnik’s prize-winning photograph is being displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London until February 24
Above: Jonathan Torgovnik and (top) his prize-winning image of a Rwandan mother and her children. Right: a photograph from his Bollywood series