Your body tells your life story

We’ve discussed previously that our body language says a lot about us and that within a split second we make a snap judgement about a person, even before they’ve said a word. Our posture, our expressions, our general energy, all add up to create this first impression, and a lot of these elements are influenced by our life story.

That’s what I set out to discover talking with the amazing Kristian Skeie, a documentary photographer who has been following life after genocide in both Rwanda and Bosnia.

Speaking with Kristian was at times inspiring and chilling. Some of the stories are so heart breaking, yet the message that comes from his work is one of hope and a powerful reminder of how important photography is at preserving memory.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

Let us never forget!

Interview with Kristian Skeie

Kristian Skeie

Kristian Skeie is a Swiss-based photojournalist who shares his time between corporate and documentary photography, teaching photography at Webster University Geneva, and organising photography workshop trips.

After accompanying a school trip to Srebrenica and hearing a survival story from a young man his age, he became compelled to learn more and tell these survivors’ stories. Ever since, his travels have brought him back to Bosnia, and then on to Rwanda where he relentlessly documents how not only individual people,  but whole countries move on after such a terrible part in their common history.

Genocide is a pretty heavy subject. What drives you to document this subject in particular?

When we talk about genocide, we talk about thousands of people dying. These numbers are so huge the individual people disappear in the numbers, but by working with people, you can see one face. This is what I want to shine the light on.

What role does body language play in your work as a photographer?

In my work, I often get to meet and photograph people who don’t speak the same language as me, so our body language is really the only way we can connect. It’s amazing to see how much we can share despite the spoken words.

Some other times, I have only very little time to take a picture, and I need to connect with that person quickly. Here too body language helps me get that connection.

But maybe most importantly, photography is a language, and we all know that “a picture is worth a thousand words”.
When telling stories with photos like I do, body language is the language in our pictures.
I could tell you about this young girl crying outside the warehouse in Potocari where this years burial of the dead coffins are placed, but it’s only when you see the image that can you start feeling her pain. That’s how powerful body language is in our pictures.
What Body Language cue lets you know someone is ready to let you photograph them / work with you?

It depends if I’m doing corporate or documentary work. In my corporate work, I always start by talking with the person and there is a natural point where we move on to taking the photos. There is a look of confirmation, and I know it’s the right time.

In editorial work it’s a bit different, and depends on every situation. I spend time with them and photograph them doing something or talking with someone so my photographs show them as naturally as possible.

Can you share a few stories with us?
Révérien is a special man. A very honest man. He barely survived the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda.
He was only 15 years old when he witnessed the massacre of 43 of his family members. After some more trials, he ended up in Switzerland where he received treatment, was offered care and shelter, and started a new life.
The first time I met him we talked for 3-4 hours before I picked up my camera and only snapped a few images. I went on to work a lot with him later and even travelled back to Rwanda with him.
His body language reflects the horror he faced, and his strength is very visible in the images. At times we also can see the anger he still feels about what happened to his family. But what speaks the most about his experience are the scars he wears all over his body (see top image). He was offered cosmetic surgery several times but has always refused it. His body tells his story, and he wears it proudly because he doesn’t want anyone to forget what happened.
He published a book with his story that you will find here: Genocide: My Stolen Rwanda.

Raphael participated in the brutal mass murder of over a million Tutsis in 1994.

It was a surreal experience for me to meet one of the faces behind these crimes. I only had 10 minutes to shoot this image before catching my bus back to the airport, and the meeting took place in a small ally behind the hotel, at noon. To say that the conditions were far from ideal is an understatement.

I didn’t know what to expect, as I waited for him to arrive.

Despite having quite a presence, it’s a rather humble, and introverted man who appeared. He was bent forward, almost hiding and had a weak hand shake. He followed my instructions, no questions asked… simply doing as he was instructed… just as he said he had done back then. “I was ordered to do it, so I did.” was really all he had to say about his actions.

I think it was quite courageous of him to accept to be photographed. He knew what I was going to use the images for and that his face was going to be representative of the horrors committed. It was eye opening to see that 20 years later, he is now part of society again. He went to prison for 12 years for what he did. He did his time. Life goes on.

What is the Body Language cue that makes you cringe when you see it in photos?

Seeing nose holes.

I asked Kristian if he knew why, but he wasn’t sure. “I just don’t like it” he said. In non verbal communication, we push our chins up and look “down the nose” at people when we feel superior to them, so when we see nose holes in a picture we feel like the person is looking down at us. 

Pro tip from Kristian

Never forget that as a portrait photographer, you’re doing half the work. It’s a collaboration with your subject and you need the other half to work with you if you want to create a meaningful picture.