"15 years as a photographer, six of which, dedicated to creating a set of images worthy of a Fellowship with my children's portrait work, & still my work never fails to challenge and stimulate me. The tools taken on during this time have been fundamental to retaining the creative hunger and an intrinsic desire to take the skill somewhere new and different.
An opportunity to visit Rwanda in 2010 through UK based Msaada came along at a time when I was looking to put to use the desire to work under a different kind of pressure, that questioned that fine line between documenting a story and creating fine art from that.
We talk about the make up of an image, what gives the viewer that immediate perception of what is going on. An alchemy of light, location, composition in parts are contributors and a necessity to emphasise and guide a story in the right direction. In my day to day work of portraiture, I strive to create a subtle narrative, something that will invite the viewer to question. Most images in what ever genre, hold a framework or foundation which can be built upon - embellishment is not necessarily in the final print, indeed it can be something that is taken away from the picture rather than added that gives it that finality.
My own experience of the horrors of 1994 was a blurred recollection of Hutu/Tutsi civil war, mass graves being unearthed after the 100 days of the slaughter of men, women and children. It wasn't until Msaada invited me to travel under their umbrella that I properly researched and understood the enormity of what happened in this beautiful country. The promiscuous, media fuelled murder of the Tutsi community - these people sought refuge in havens of safety such as schools and churches only to be set down in cold blood. Msaada's work alongside the Rwandan charity Avega encourages rehabilitation and assistance to widows, children who were thrown into being heads of their households (often taking in Orphans as part of their new family), Orphans and those with long term emotional and physical damage.
My work in Rwanda took me to villages supported by the charity to encourage groups successfully sustaining their living through various resources such as basket weaving, batik making, bee keeping, the growing of Sorgum and pineapples.
Willingly out of my comfort zone - I had no preconceptions of what I was to be offered creatively - my only personal stipulation was not to sensationalize in any way, to work in a wholly respectful manner - and like in most communities, if you respect people, you gain trust. I didn't see my trip just about the genocide, it was about Africa, it was about women (mainly) and by keeping this open mind I didn't have to try to create that narrative of what could be quite painful and sad imagery. There is a fine line between melancholy and sad.
Unlike with my work at home, the story was there to be seen, it didn't need manipulating in any way which makes this a very honest representation of hard working, funny, warm people that you find all around the world - the only difference in Rwanda is the horror in their history, the emotional scars which are wholly visible in the eyes and related in the pictures. Very little direction was required to make this visible and locations were chosen by the women to demonstrate them in their environments.
My experience in photography, especially working with children, is to be perceptive and reactive to how people react to me - I mean in an immediate response to something I have said or by language, I have to be perceptive to people's feelings. This very much came into its own in Rwanda. I would never have asked to be taken into a room full of bones - those of these womens families - it was offered and encouraged, I hope in order for me to create something visual to bring back in order to educate.
A nugget is offered to the viewer through the pictures to create their own story - that may be sadness or euphoria - that is the offering of intent in my work. A tease if you like to something that can be developed through the viewers imagination."
Bella West is gallery artist based in Dorset, UK with a career spanning twenty years. Born from a stint at Bournemouth Art college and an apprenticeship with a sports imaging company which lead to her own company being formed in 1998. She holds a Fellowship with the BIPP for her work with childrens portraiture though her editorial work and fine art practice has since developed. Her portrait work takes her throughout the world and she is a passionate mentor and teacher.
The featured photographer for April 2012 was Bella West