Rwanda: Portraits Under Pressure

Look for light patterns. Pastor Anastase is a leader in the Rwandan reconciliation movement.

Scout out interesting textures. Nzabonirera, whose name means, "I will see God raising him up," is an orphan of the genocide in Rwanda.

Explore extreme angles. Glorious is one of the main workers at Land of a Thousand Hills coffee washing station.

Find a background that relates to subject's story. Pastor Pius, a survivor of the genocide, ran for his life and hid for days in a banana plantation. He said, "Every face you see on the streets carrries a hidden pain from the genocide. No one has been untouched."

Just wait for a good reaction or expression. Sophia was orphaned by the genocide. The non-profit side of Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee, ( has been able to supply her basic needs for housing, food and schooling.

Look for graphic lines and color. Amie, 23, is chief of fermentation at Ruli Washing Station. Here he is in a fermentation tank. "Before coffee my life was very bad. I was an orphan. I lost my family in the genocide. Because of coffee, I get money and I am succeding."

Have you ever felt the almost paralyzing fear of realizing you have 5 minutes to pull off a story-telling, engaging portrait and nothing seems to be working in your favor? There is no time to set up the lights you brought, even though you ditched your mantra of “carry-on luggage only” to bring the extra bag all the way to Africa. You feel a great creative void inside from whence ideas used to flow like a cool mountain creek. You hear the imaginary tick-tock of the clock that tortures you with the truth that time is running out and the harsh mid-day sun — that is horrible for portraits — is making you sweat on top of your already nervous sweating.

Then you see a beam of light crossing an old wooden wall in the church or you remember seeing an interesting mud texture on a wall. Suddenly, your mind clears a bit and you visualize how a colorful graphic alignment of lines could make a great background. You remember your subject spoke about hiding for his life in a banana plantation… “I can use that as my background,” you sigh in relief. Creative ideas begin to slowly push aside the fear of failure. Time is still pressing in, but now you have a visual hook to hang your portrait on.

When I have to do portraits under extreme time pressure, I look for certain elements that I can place my subject into:

1) Beams of light or pools of light

2) Textured backgrounds

3) Extreme angles

4) Story-related backgrounds

5) Comfortable location where I can have a conversation that may elicit a great expression

6) Graphic lines and colors.

All of these choices of background should help the viewers to understand something more about the people and their story.

I don’t know about you, but I am certain all these ideas don’t just pop into my head from nothing. I am learning to relax more and actually enjoy the creative process that goes from nothing to something as I push fear aside and rely on solutions that come from God’s creativity.


All Photographs copyright Gary S. Chapman

(Nikon D3s, 24mm f1.4, 1/160 sec, f7.1, ISO1000)

(Nikon D3s, 50mm 1.4, 1/500 sec, f4.5, ISO200)

(Nikon D3s, 24mm f1.4, 1/40 sec, f3.2, ISO200)

(Nikon D3s, 50mm 1.4, 1/400 sec, f1.4, ISO250)

(Nikon D3s, 50mm 1.4, 1/2500 sec, f1.8, ISO1600)

(Nikon D3s, 70-200mm 2.8 @150mm, 1/400 sec, f2.8, ISO800)

11 thoughts

  1. Very nice Gary, thank you for sharing! Don’t know what else to say, the story is captivating and beautifully captured. I could completely relate to the behind the scenes inner workings of your mind, hearing that clock tick against you as you try to focus on being led by the Holy Spirit and His ability in you! Very helpful tips as well, I would say my strongest attribute from your suggestion list is #5, love making clients feel comfortable to capture natural expression, will have to work on #6!

  2. Good Stuff Gary. After just completing two trips with World Vison I know what that ticking clock sounds like. Great reminders of how to get those creative juices flowing.

  3. Thanks for the insight into your working practice and creativity. You pulled off a series of great portraits here – I especially love the first one.

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