Liberia Part 1: The Ten Year Round-trip

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This weekend, instead of looking forward to another week in New York, I’m packing for a trip to Liberia. I was last in Liberia ten years ago as the Second Liberian Civil War ended with a peace agreement on 18 August 2003 and international forces (largely from the US and Nigeria) arrived to begin providing security until a new government could be formed.

Back then I was packing my first digital camera—a Canon point-and-shoot with the battery life of a fruit fly, but really good colour rendition. I took only a few photos, being wary of the limited battery life and not being sure that I could recharge it. This post is reliant on my memory rather than my photographs to describe the state of Liberia at the time.

In 2003, Liberia was in ruins. Many Liberians had ready access to weapons, whether part of an armed group or not. The capital, Monrovia, was without water or electricity and showed the effects of prolonged fighting and years of decay. The countryside had been ravaged as the warring forces moved across the nation. The war had been fought between two rebel groups and the government led by Charles Taylor, who resigned on 11 August 2003 following concerted international pressure to step down.

Taylor was a despotic leader whose brutality spilled over into the affairs of neighbouring countries. Convicted by the UN Special Court for aiding and abetting rebels in Sierra Leone during the 1991-2002 civil war, the Presiding Judge said that Taylor was responsible for “planning some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.”

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In the drive to end the war, great pressure for peace was brought by a domestic Liberian womens’ group called the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace which also attended the peace negotiations in Accra, Ghana. Liberia is now led by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Elected in 2005, she is the first elected woman head of state in Africa. With a background in economics, she has previously worked for the World Bank and the United Nations.

My overriding memories of the 2003 trip are of torrential rain, child soldiers who were well-armed and very unpredictable, huge numbers of suffering people (not mobs, but simmering close to a boil), and the very welcome presence of US Marines and other international troops onshore, offshore and overhead. Amongst all of this, one surreal oasis of normality existed where order prevailed—the Firestone Natural Rubber Plantation which even offered its employees a golf course.

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So as I pack ten years later, I can’t help but notice that my camera bag has moved on as well. I’m going with digital and film, having rediscovered both a love of the darkroom and the pleasure of working with mechanical cameras. I like to travel with carry-on baggage only. This limits the risk of losing bags in transit, but it also limits my choices for cameras. On this trip, I will take the Nikon D300, plus flash, and one lens: Nikon 24mm F2.8. With the 1.5 crop on the D300, I have an effective focal length of about 35mm. For film, I will take my Olympus Mju also with a 35mm lens (OK—not so “old school”and not so mechanical).

Both cameras are auto-focus and auto-exposure: I want to reduce the chances of missed shots. One of the joys of digital is the ability to be sure that you have a good shot and Liberia is a long way to go just to mess up the focus or exposure. My usual film choice is Kodak Tri-X. This time I will also take Ilford Delta 3200 thanks to a recommendation from the blog Cooking Film.

I am eager to see how much has changed; I expect to see and feel real progress. I’m looking forward to documenting my trip and posting photos of people and daily life (hence the Delta 3200) in Part II of this post. For better or for worse, nothing stays the same. Here’s hoping for better.

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