Rwanda-based photographer Chris Schwagga on photography as language

Burundese photographer Chris Schwagga uses photography as his language – and, just like words, an image can be very ambiguous.

From the Series

Born in Burundi, raised in the Congo and based now in Kigali, Rwanda, photographer Chris Schwagga started taking pictures when he was 21 with a two megapixel point-and-shoot camera. His inspiration comes from travelling and music, as well as elements of the cultures of the countries he moves between. 

“Travelling makes me a better person. I read somewhere that travelling makes us rich … it's important to learn about other cultures in Africa and all over the world, just to remind us how small we are,” says Schwagga.

The creative scene in Kigali, where he currently lives, is growing rapidly. There is a growing network of photographers, painters, musicians, dancers and fashion designers – some of whom Schwagga shoots editorial images for. He also has a vast portfolio of art photography, in which he often creates abstract work to trigger the viewer into reflecting on a certain theme.

“I consider photography as a language, a tool, a way to express all kinds of feelings; also to treat important issues, ask questions or analyse situations. Of course there is also the commercial aspect, but let’s say that – like all languages – it has multiple purposes.”

In his personal work, Shwagga has used masks to create contrast – the subject wears a contemporary outfit and a traditional mask.

“Masks create anonymity – I think that not seeing a ‘stranger’s’ face in the photo helps focus on the meaning rather than the model. Faces don’t always tell who we are. I want people to see more than just what is apparent.”

Schwagga is hoping to explore some more film work in the near future. He is particularly interested in trying out stop-motion animation.