Photographing Liberia


We’ll pretend we did not see Alex Perry’s clichéd description of Liberia (including a reference to Liberian Kreyol as “a patois that is both thuggish and warm”) to a Time LightBox feature on the work of photographer Glenna Gordon, and concentrate on her portraits instead. Glenna–we interviewed her here about her favorite photographers–writes about her work: “I have now been working in Liberia for the better part of the past three years, and while much of the work I do is for publications or organizations, the work I feel most strongly about is my own documentary project which focuses on understanding Liberia’s past and desire to embrace the present.”

Along with the photos, which includes a series on the recent presidential elections, she sent us some context:

Liberia’s civil war ended nearly a decade ago and the country is, at least nominally, peaceful. Some things are getting better for some people. But after so many years of conflict, no one makes plans for the future. I first visited Liberia in January 2009, and since then, signs of progress assure donors and investors that their money is well spent. A couple of times a year, the government and businesses put a fresh coat of paint over all the buildings along the main roads. They paint over the mold and the wet, but in the soupy tropical air, the quick coating won’t keep the walls clean.  Freed American slaves came to Liberia in the 1820s. They called themselves the Americos. They wore top hats and hoop skirts despite the hot West African sun. They brought antebellum inequality with them, but this time, they were in charge. The indigenous people of Liberia became second-class citizens in their own country. More than a hundred years of grievances led to a coup and political unrest in the 1980s, followed by a civil war that lasted fourteen years, displaced a third of the country and left 200,000 dead. In a country of just three million people, no one was untouched. After the war, a theatrical Truth and Reconciliation Commission did nothing meaningful to address crimes and wrongs and the current leadership, the internationally adored Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Liberia’s future is uncertain. People are desperate to move forward, but often at the cost of ignoring the past. The past will always out; fixing the surface doesn’t fix the problem. In my work, I seek traces of war wounds – psychological and physical – and examine the devices improvised to hide the hurt and embrace the present. I seek out signs of a time before the conflict, where a romanticized past is still visible. I try to understand what it means to live today without thoughts of tomorrow.

Above (that’s former footballer George Weah, and his running mate Wilson Tubman and their attaché sitting at a campaign rally) and below we feature some of the images. Following is a photograph of a signboard depicting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, EU president Herman Van Rompuy, UK Prime Minister David Cameron [or is it economist Jeffrey Sachs?] and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ‘saving’ Liberia (taken in October 2011).

Below, “the Armed Forces of Liberia kept watch as United Nations helicopters circled before the announcement of election results. Many feared Liberia would descend back into violence and war” (October, 2011).

Finally, “a shop in central Monrovia, Liberia, selling wedding dresses also rents them out for $150 a day, which includes the price of dry cleaning. Most Liberians live on less than a dollar a day. While the female president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is internationally lauded as a champion of women’s rights, within Liberia women and girls still live with the daily threats of violence and rape” (December 2009).

Comments

comments

4 Comments
  1. Glenna Gordon (the photographer) context in this article is so bias and subjective. Of course, as a non Liberian, you would expect a more objective view, but as a Liberian, we can clearly see who she sides with and with whom she hangs out.
    We are not on anyone’s side here, but no side in the country or elections is cleaner than the other. It is what is better for development and improvement is what some Liberians and the world (it seems) is focusing on. Picking a leader who can represent the country internationally and appeal to the international community in a way that draws attention as well as investment and some security is what is important at this point. Sirleaf seem to be the Golden Child at the moment. CDC could have done the same under different circumstances, but running a country is not sorely a popularity contest. It takes some aspect of leadership as well. Inciting violence (by CDC) in a country that is damaged by years of war just rubs everyone the wrong way. Corruption has been rampant before Taylor, Sirleaf, or Weah. It is what it is and has always been, long before any of this. Hopefully with time, it will improve (fingers tightly crossed).
    Expats are privilege in Liberia. No matter who you are or what your visit is, you are privileged. To take sides makes no sense. Expats enjoy and exploit Liberians for who they are and what they have, period. We, Liberians need to tell it in our own voices, our way, or else this is all one outsider’s opinion after another.

    1. It’s hard to tell what this commenter means, exactly, but I’m pretty sure that the photographer never claimed objectivity, and has instead offered us the benefit of her experience and her opinions. And insulting the photographer by claiming she has “exploited” Liberians, just by virtue of living in Liberia as an ex-pat, is both reductive and ridiculous. in short — what a jerk. Go take your own photos if you’re so insulted, and leave this artist (and the many who find her work striking and relevant) in peace.

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