No Pictures Accompany This Essay

Published on 18 June 2020 02:15 PM
By Annalisa Bolin

A picture that could appear here: rows of skulls nestled neatly next to each other. Some of them are whole, some broken; all without jaws. This picture exists in a hundred different guises. Sometimes the skulls are barred into their shelf by a metal rod. Sometimes their teeth sit on glass and a fluorescent bulb drains bone color to a cool blue tinge. The light is dark or bright, the air full or empty of dust, the shadows deep or shallow. The skulls’ empty sockets look out; a confrontation.

I wanted to see the skulls.

I was writing about human remains taken from Rwanda by a German expedition in the first decade of the twentieth century and carted off to Berlin. For that reason I’d come to Berlin myself, where I sat across a large desk from a man who had been charged, recently, with the care of the skulls. I held in my hand an uncomfortably small notebook I’d bought at a convenience store. The man had been gracious, generous with his time, tolerant of my inquiry. But when I raised the question of seeing the skulls, his face snapped shut.

That is only for those who have a reason to see them, he said. Why do you want to see them?

I wanted to see them to see them: to write about something one must know what one is writing about, isn’t that correct? But I could see this wasn’t the kind of reason that would convince him. I wanted to see them because they were at the center of my research, at that time, and not seeing them meant there was a void I was writing around. I knew that an anthropologist on the expedition had taken the skulls from German East Africa and carried them back to Berlin; that his supervisor at the Ethnographic Museum had added the skulls to an anthropological collection; and that they had bounced around in Berlin, decade to decade, until this man across the desk had taken over their care and started to discuss with the Rwandan government how to send them back. But I had never seen the skulls, except a photograph of one, from the side, with a browned ink word in careful printing, not the name of its owner or an identifier but just a location, the place from which it had been taken.

Well—I said, and stopped.

He said, They are not available to see. You understand.

A picture that could appear here: a skull with the word Busira written on it in a faded brown cursive. This labeled its origin on a tag that would never fall off. Many of the records associated with this skull, and the others that accompanied it on its route from German East Africa to Germany, were lost, because they were written on paper. Then, too, some of the records of the skulls themselves were lost, as they crumbled in basements and moved from institution to institution (see Bolin, 2021). But the skull with Busira on it—photos of that one appear online in the museum’s public relations efforts: stories about the research the museum conducted, the plans it made. The Busira skull has a second or third life as a representative of itself and its fellows, carried by the internet around the world. You can find it if you look.

A picture that could appear here: one from an exhibition mounted in Kigali by German and Rwandan researchers (Brandstetter et al., 2008), in which a black and white print shows the back of an African man with the swooping hairstyle popular in Rwanda’s past and sometimes rejuvenated these days, called amasunzu; standing with a fist on one hip as he watches a column of porters move through a treeless, scrubby landscape of hills. It is the Mecklenburg Expedition, and Mecklenburg’s laborers. A white man also appears.

The first time I visited the genocide memorial at Ntarama, it was in the company of a friend, my Kinyarwanda teacher and sometime research assistant, who I will call J. I had an elastic sense that J was a survivor: this would mean that he was Tutsi, one of the people targeted for death in 1994, who had lost family to the génocidaires. J and I took the minibus out of Kigali, a small, crowded vehicle in which we were pressed up against each other and the bare metal shell of the vehicle, my shoulder jammed against the glass of the window or protruding out of it. It was a mode of transit designed to make one intimately aware of the nonnegotiable structures of one’s skeleton.

Nyamata was our first stop, a large town, site of another memorial. Here we disembarked and paced through the memorial: a loop I would make many times in the years to come, greeted first by a security officer with a rifle slung over her shoulder, then shepherded by a tour guide. I do not remember J’s face as we viewed Nyamata. I was doing my best to be respectful and at the time I understood this to mean that I should ask questions to demonstrate my engagement, but mainly I remember being overwhelmed. I could not think of anything to say and felt obscurely that I was letting everyone down.

We rode on the backs of motorcycle taxis to the memorial site at Ntarama, in a neighboring town, down a bumpy and rain-rutted road that not so many years later, when I visited for the third or the fifth time, would be paved, with an eye to giant tour buses whose side mirrors would loop forward like antennae. But at the time the Bugesera airport—which planners anticipated doubling, tripling, quadrupling tourism in the district—was only a rumor and Ntarama was not much visited. I was not much good at riding on motos yet, either, and clutched the handle on the back of the seat with clawed fingers.

J and I made the same motions at Ntarama: we entered the front gate, which years later would also be closed and rerouted; we greeted the security guard and the tour guide; I blinked my way through a tour that traced nearly the same history as at Nyamata, a relentless recounting of deaths, attacks, attempted escapes, refuges in the marshlands, drownings in the river, machetes, grenades, machetes, machetes. After the tour, we were released to walk around Ntarama on our own, a silence for which I was grateful.

At the very end, J turned to me and asked a question I had not anticipated, which threw me into a confused distress. (Why was I distressed, or confused? Did I think his question was inappropriate? What did inappropriate mean? Who got to determine appropriateness, if not J himself? Who was I to say what was inappropriate, a foreigner? If J was a better person to determine appropriateness, why did I feel so overwhelmed by his question? How could I hide from J what his question made me feel, or that I had plunged after it into a brief, spiraling investigation of appropriateness, of myself, of what I was doing there, looking at skulls and bones, my eyes absorbing the blood on the walls?)

Do you want to take a selfie together? he asked, smiling.

A picture that could appear here: J and myself, shoulder to shoulder, from above, an arm disappearing just to the edge of the frame, the fractured bricks of Ntarama behind us, Rwanda’s red dirt beneath us. If the picture exists.

Certain bodies can be looked at, certain others are protected or not protected from looking. Who appears dead, and who is invisible? The dynamics cut both ways. Attention is currency: nobody is talking about this, nobody is reporting on this. Attention is violation: how dare you exploit the bodies of the dead. We do not agree about whether and how to look at the dead. In some instances people avoid encountering even their names: the warning readers should be aware that this publication contains the names and images of deceased people appears on the copyright page of National Museums Australia’s Repatriation Handbook (Pickering, 2020), in acknowledgment of Aboriginal cultural principles.

Eleven years ago, for the first time, I stood in front of a roomful of listeners and talked about Rwanda. I was studying its genocide memorials, but no images of the memorials appeared in my presentations. This wasn’t to say that I hadn’t looked at them. Pictures are thick on the ground: people reviewing memorials on travel websites and starring them one to five; uploaded videos of their visits; sober academic accounts; official documentation. In the past any visitor was allowed to take photographs inside the memorials, and this is what I went looking for, to find how they had appeared years before I saw them. In photographs of one site I could see tattered clothing, dirty rosary beads, rotten foam mattresses, scattered bones. In photographs of another, the arched and lolling heads of corpses. People are not allowed to take such pictures anymore; nor can they, since in the intervening years the memorials have changed, cleaned up, imposed order (Bolin, 2020).

At the presentation, regardless, I included none of these photographs. Someone asked me why. I said it was because of the presence of people in the room who did not sign up to see photographs of bodies, and especially not these: their various decay, their evident injury. In other contexts, I went on, I could see myself using them, but not springing them on people who had come to learn about something else.

I was thinking then about the bodies as images of surprise: as tools for shock, sometimes to be deployed. Some say we must look at the bodies of these dead precisely because of this: that we must know what happened to them, the magnitude of their suffering must be driven home. I think of the body of Alan Kurdi, the tiny Syrian boy drowned in the Mediterranean, lying on a beach, and the furor around the image: can we look at such things, should we look away from such things, or must we look at such things? If we do not look, are we denying what either we have, or else what has been, wrought? The gaze seems to be violation, witness, witness, violation.

But this is nothing not already said, and better, by Susan Sontag, in her classic Regarding the Pain of Others, which covers “the innumerable opportunities a modern life supplies for regarding—at a distance, through the medium of photography—other people’s pain” (Sontag, 2003, p. 12). “Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience,” she says (Sontag, 2003, p. 18). And perhaps spectating these in another country is quintessentially modern, but of course the phenomenon of looking itself is not specifically localized to modernity. Sontag also quotes Socrates, “relat[ing] a story he heard about Leontius, son of Aglaion”:

On his way up from the Piraeus outside the north wall, he noticed the bodies of some criminals lying on the ground, with the executioner standing by them. He wanted to go and look at them, but at the same time he was disgusted and tried to turn away. He struggled for some time and covered his eyes, but at last the desire was too much for him. Opening his eyes wide, he ran up to the bodies and cried, “There you are, curse you, feast yourselves on this lovely sight.” (Sontag, 2003, pp. 96–97)

Philip Gourevitch, a journalist, uses the same section—of Plato’s Republic—as the epigraph to his book on the Rwandan genocide (Gourevitch, 1998), which when it was published was one of the first longform studies of the event. It was, too, one of the first books I ever read about the genocide; it probably, despite what I’d later come to realize were its distortions and flattenings, had a definitive role in my choosing to study Rwanda professionally. Gourevitch addresses his reader empathetically:

Like Leontius, the young Athenian in Plato, I presume that you are reading this because you desire a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. Perhaps, in examining this extremity with me, you hope for some understanding, some insight, some flicker of self-knowledge—a moral, or a lesson, or a clue about how to behave in this world … (Gourevitch, 1998, p. 19)

True, I was looking for that. But, as I came to learn later, I was also looking to look; because I was curious; because nothing in my life had brought me face to face with this particular kind of dead. In which I was lucky, although I did not think overmuch about that at the time.

Gourevitch visits Nyarubuye, a church which would later become one of the national genocide memorials, soon after the calamity:

The dead at Nyarubuye were, I’m afraid, beautiful. There was no getting around it. The skeleton is a beautiful thing. The randomness of the fallen forms, the strange tranquillity of their rude exposure, the skull here, the arm bent in some uninterpretable gesture there—these things were beautiful, and their beauty only added to the affront of the place. I couldn’t settle on any meaningful response: revulsion, alarm, sorrow, grief, shame, incomprehension, sure, but nothing truly meaningful. I just looked, and I took photographs, because I wondered whether I could really see what I was seeing while I saw it, and I wanted also an excuse to look a bit more closely. (Gourevitch, 1998, p. 19)

At the genocide memorial at Nyamata, many years after I first read Gourevitch’s book, I participated in a preservation project that focused on the clothing of genocide victims there. As part of their work, team members cleaned and organized clothes that had been in piles inside the church for years; they lifted and shook them, gently, sending puffs of thick dust into the air. I was tasked sometimes with taking photographs of the process, and I stared through the screen of a DSLR I didn’t really know how to work. The camera validated me: through it I could look at anything I wanted, because my looking had a purpose; was more than just gawking.

Leontius calls it feasting, this gazing upon the dead, when he forces his eyes to gorge upon them. And we too call it consumption: as if our eyes eat what they look at, and then—but we don’t so often discuss this part—digest it, use it, expel it. There are not clearer words for what I did, either, as an archaeologist and a researcher: we digest a book, a text, a set of data. At the same time I could not quite bring myself to understand the body as being consumed in this way. It was, after all, quietly unaffected by whatever roiled through my brain. Plato may once have conceived of sight as a beam, the eye as a projector, vision casting itself upon what it sees. But when I look at the bodies I think of my eye receiving the reflection of the sun; that what I see is made visible only through the mediation of a great star. As if the bodies require translation. In fact my own eye is changed by this projection of light into it: I am both consuming and being carved upon, drilled into. If what I eat is what I am made of, I am also what seeing those bodies has made me. I do not dream of them but sometimes they overcome me.

A picture that could appear here: a shriveled hand, missing its thumb, its flesh—is it flesh? What does one call it when soft tissue becomes something else, a gritty, leathery substance, fuzzed with dirt?—a range of dark gray-browns impossible to describe; nor is it possible to describe how the shape holds together, the bones and those strings of whatever they are, tendon or skin or collagen, or fascia, a word I must look up; and the ends of the fingers, each with something like a nail, and where has the thumb gone? But the wrist holds the rest of it up and the fingers curl down toward what would have been a palm, and it all comes out of a pile of clothing excavated from a grave, the rest of its body long separated, leaving just this mummified hand. A photo of this exists in the documentation for one of the genocide memorials—a private government archive where only a very few can see it.

In some ways seeing the bodies was about pain. You cannot study or indeed find out anything about Rwanda’s past without hearing about pain, the immense variety of physical torment, and continual human innovation in the field. And yet as I write this I think, should I enumerate it, or should I elide it? Is it indecent to look too directly at pain, or to report on it, or is this in fact the way we honor it, by declining to avoid it? Again it is something Sontag has said before and better: “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it … or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be” (Sontag, 2003, p. 42)

To learn, though, is a wide net. Who could learn from pain? Perhaps I learned from pain in the most defensible way: I was a scholar, my entire purpose was to learn, I was literally paid for it. I struggled with it, too, when I visited the memorials. The memorials are for survivors, to remember; for mourners; for families, for friends, for orphans and for those who lost their siblings, their cousins, their spouses. They are for all Rwandans, at home and abroad. And beyond that?

I never met a Rwandan who felt the memorials should be restricted to Rwandans themselves. Indeed the memorials asked for visitors; they functioned, beyond mourning, on an economy of acknowledgement: they did not exist for themselves but as embodiments of a message, directed to Rwandans surely but also to the rest of us, outside. The then-premier of Rwanda once said that they preserve, that they prove, that they offer firsthand information; that it would be hard for anyone to mislead those who had seen them and been armed with this knowledge (Mbonyinshuti, 2017). The line was not offered casually or without thought: establishing a consistent narrative about the genocide is crucial for Rwanda’s government, and the memorials themselves, what they hold and what they speak of, are key. They are there to convey both histories and messages. One message was Where were you And another was Remember; and a third Never again. And one more was underneath them, the one that enabled them, a proof running like a vein under the skin: Bear witness.

Encountering them felt like a question to which I could not satisfactorily respond. I was not sure where I fit, as visitor, as reporter. Why was it considered better for me to write about what I had witnessed—why do I not refer to Sontag’s book entirely about the ethics of reporting on death, but rather to her book about photographing it? No one at my presentations objected to me mentioning the bones, or indeed to centering my entire lecture around them. Perhaps the border was at description. Never did I try to make the audience see it, to describe the spiderweb of breaks in a crushed skull, to illustrate what a machete does to a bone; and in a photograph you cannot help but see.

I never presented photos of the bodies and indeed I wrote not too much about them, either, other than bare words like bones sorted by type, or rows of skulls. A skull looks much like any other skull; you can picture it in your head now, and you would be about right. You don’t need to see a photograph. Then again, the skulls are lined up all together not in the interest of simply presenting them to the eye. Their arrangement is the point: so many of them on a shelf convey the logic of the mass (Guyer, 2009). They show you not just themselves but themselves together: the volume of so many is the purpose, what genocide is as a material thing. If you have not seen it I do not know that you know it.

If Sontag considered that only those who can alleviate or learn from such pain should encounter it, I turned that into a performance. It felt obscurely better to be looking for a reason that I could materially perform—to hold the DSLR, or to take notes in a notebook, and to process what I had seen first through my brain matter and then through my hands. The bones split me: the part of me that wished to look, the part that wished not to; the part that held the camera, and was this done for those who might see me hold it, or for myself? Safer to be seen to have a purpose than to simply stare, hands at one’s sides, as if one wanted—how dare!—only to look.

A picture that could appear here: at the top of the scene, a row of trees against a pale blue sky. In the mid-ground, a deep cut into dirt, forming a small cliff. In front of the cliff, a white man in combat fatigues, left hand out, right hand holding a clipboard; he faces an African man poised on one foot with both hands stretched before his face, as if dancing, but in fact his whole body is involved in tossing another, smaller body, wrapped in white fabric, through the air. The smaller body arcs across the sky and will land, at any moment, on a vast pile of wrapped fabrics, filling the bottom of the frame from left to right: dead upon dead upon dead.

The bodies at Rwanda’s memorials are effectively corpus delicti, the body of the crime: their presence indicates its existence. The bodies came to be at the memorials largely through exhumation. The remains of those murdered were sometimes left where they had fallen, but in other cases they were buried; and those who had been abandoned were usually buried later. During the gacaca trials after the genocide, many perpetrators revealed as part of their confessions where bodies had been buried, thrown (as down a well), dumped, or otherwise concealed. Such revelations validated the confessions, which, if accepted, could reduce a perpetrator’s sentence. The bodies once more were acted upon for the benefit of the living.

It is this idea of the body as proof that the prime minister called upon when he said that those who had seen the bodies, now, could not be misled. He was preoccupied with the specter of genocide denial: the claim that the genocide never occurred at all, or that if there had been murders they were only scattered and decentralized, or that perhaps there had been a double genocide, an equal and opposite reaction. There is a concern about erasure—one that can be countered, in this schema, only with proof of existence. This is why the bodies appear at the memorials, even as their presence has been controversial and painful (Bolin, 2019; Burnet, 2012). But what good is proof without someone to see it?

It takes only seeing an image of pain to activate neural processes that trigger empathy (Schott, 2015). The bodies in those memorials speak so eloquently of pain; photographs of them make it possible for that moment of empathy to distribute itself around the world. I do not know if that is an argument for or against it. Is empathy the goal? Is knowledge? Is it somehow different—preferable? required? acceptable?—to make the effort to be physically present, standing there, face to broken face? Or are we better not to use the bodies as empathy tools—more mobilization, more work?

Not long ago I encountered a picture, visibly from the 1990s, of a white man standing over a mass grave; he was in combat fatigues, and another man was tossing a small body into the grave. The person who posted this photo claimed that it showed a French soldier directing the disposal of Rwandan genocide victims—a statement which draws on arguments over the French role in either actively protecting genocide perpetrators or misguidedly creating a pacified zone in which perpetrators could operate. If true, this would be photographic evidence of France’s active complicity in genocide—an ongoing international fight. Responses featured images of broken hearts, and the word shame.

As it turned out, the photograph derived from a photoessay depicting a certain Lt. da Silva. He was indeed French, and had indeed directed the disposal of bodies in mass graves after Rwanda’s genocide. But they were bodies of cholera victims in refugee camps outside of Goma, not victims of genocidal violence; and rather than supervising the deaths of children, da Silva was depicted in the photoessay as helping a young Rwandan boy, named Angelo, to survive after he had been mistakenly placed in a grave. The photographer, Christophe Calais, later published a book on Angelo’s life (Calais and Réra, 2014). It was marketed as a story of survival.

It was easy for the photo to prove something; anything. You can find the same photograph proving, as well, the existence of mass graves in Mozambique.

Seven years ago, I was encouraged by tour guides to photograph Rwanda’s memorials, and six months ago I could not take a photograph even of the exteriors except from the road. The management feared that the photographs would be misused. Proof had gotten away from them, run up against the transformative power of the internet, where anything can be evidence of anything else. The body of the crime, turned body of any crime.

A picture that could appear here: a set of people standing in front of a pile of clothing. They are dressed in suits and ties, and are clearly important personages on a formal visit. The clothing is at the back of a church, and next to it are another set of people, dressed in jumpsuits. Inside the clothing on the floor, although you cannot see them, are bits of bone: an iliac crest here, a finger bone there. The broken shard of a rib. These bones were missed, left behind after the clothes were buried, exhumed, and sorted. No one knows where the bones are, precisely, although some of the people, the second set, who have been sorting the clothes and cleaning them, know they exist. The important personages do not know. It is unclear what they would do if they did know. When I look at this photograph I sense the bones there, under rumpled and folded fabric, like tiny ghosts.

There were skulls in Berlin. There were skulls in a museum storage facility. There were skulls at the memorials at Ntarama, Bisesero, Nyarubuye. Gisozi, too. Kibuye. At Murambi, they were still part of bodies, wrapped in desiccated flesh. At Ntarama they were in a corrugated-metal storage shed; then, years later, they were in acrylic cases. At Nyamata they were underground: they were outside in mass graves; they were in a white-tiled crypt inside the church. All taken through violence, colonial or genocidal, one way or another; all belonging no longer to themselves.

I wanted to see the skulls because there was no substitute for seeing the skulls. I felt I could not understand what I was trying to understand (the trajectory of the past and future; what had happened; what had happened) without seeing them. I am not offering to you the same thing—no photographs of what I saw, only my report, these words that you cannot validate or disprove. Nothing to follow up on the Prime Minister’s assertion—the promise that by seeing the skulls you would know the truth, and none could mislead you thereafter. Maybe you read this because you too wanted to see the skulls.

In Kibuye I saw the skulls without expecting them, in locked racks near where the hillside fell away steeply into the lake. Bisesero’s were in a building which I vaguely remember as involving blue plastic tarps; in the years since I do not know what has happened to them. Everywhere they were organized. I could see femurs, too. Sometimes there were rib bones. Small bones, as of the hands or spine, generally did not appear. There were always the skulls. Human heads, squarer or rounder in shape, the brow bone more or less prominent, sometimes the small bumps on the forehead like subtle horns; I would poke about, trying to press through my skin, feel for joints like seams, touch on my own face the hinge where these skulls’ jaws had been removed, or fallen off, while my own skull resisted seeing, remained insistently hidden.

I never could reconcile it. I never felt that it was somehow more correct to not show what was there, nor did I feel that showing was self-evidently the right thing to do, nor could I stop looking. The problem, I came to believe, was not the act of looking but the crime of interest, and commission of the crime of interest had been required: what was in the memorials had been put there, in the end, to be seen. One could not bear witness without witnessing. There was no way to behave appropriately without behaving somehow inappropriately: to have seen without seeing; to know, without, in the first place, having looked.

A picture that could appear here: the curve of a brow bone, the elaborate whorl of an inner ear, the seams of a cranium. A femur looks like a femur but a skull looks like a face, like a person, with an expression, an idea—flattened plane at the temple, small crest at the back of the neck, tooth loose in the upper jaw, angled this way and that. An empty orbital socket, its dark shadows full of eye that looks back.

A picture that could appear here: a body, living or dead; then living now dead; now living not yet dead.

None of these pictures appear here.

Works Cited

Bolin, A., 2021. The strategic internationalism of Rwandan heritage. Journal of Eastern African Studies 15: 485–504.

Bolin, A., 2020. Imagining genocide heritage: Material modes of development and preservation in Rwanda. Journal of Material Culture 25: 196–219.

Bolin, A., 2019. Dignity in death and life: negotiating agaciro for the nation in preservation practice at Nyamata Genocide Memorial, Rwanda. Anthropological Quarterly 92: 345–374.

Brandstetter, A.-M., Hilden-Ahanda, M., Kanimba Misago, C., Schmidt, U., 2008. Im Land der tausend Hügel // Mu Gihugu cy’Imisozi Igihumbi (Poster series exhibited at Natural History Museum/Kandt House Museum). Kigali.

Burnet, J.E., 2012. Genocide lives in us: women, memory, and silence in Rwanda. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI.

Calais, C., Réra, N., 2014. Un destin rwandais. Société d’édition Les Belles Lettres, Paris.

Gourevitch, P., 1998. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: stories from Rwanda. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Guyer, S., 2009. Rwanda’s bones. boundary 2 36: 155–175.

Mbonyinshuti, J. d’Amour, 2017. Genocide memorials a key tool in fighting denial - PM. The New Times, April 13, 2017.

Pickering, M., 2020. A repatriation handbook: a guide to repatriating Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains. National Museum of Australia, Canberra.

Schott, G.D., 2015. Pictures of pain: their contribution to the neuroscience of empathy. Brain 138: 812–820.

Sontag, S., 2003. Regarding the pain of others. Picador, New York, NY.

Cover image & icon: ‘Disable Camera’ by kumakamu from