News and information about the Liberia ‘77 project.
In ’77, a chimp named Evelyn came to live with us. Ev came from the nearby Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research, a station overseen by the NY Bloodcenter that for a long time used chimps for scientific research. For two years Evelyn was part of our family. Most of the kids that lived on our compound were my age, so I had a solid pack of little friends. But my brother Andrew was a couple years younger than the rest of us and a bit of a lone wolf. He and Evelyn were practically inseparable…
The chimps that were once housed at the research station now live on islands off the coast near a fishing town called Marshall. There are still 63 animals at six different locations. This week we went out a couple times with the team assigned to feeding them daily. There was no sign of Evelyn, but Andrew did meet DJ – he may has well have been 4 yrs old again…
Things seem to happen here. Meet a guy in the Bamboo Bar, the next day he calls and says he’s finally got an interview with the President, but doesn’t have a camera – could you guys help? So we put on our best semi-clean shirts, smooth the secret service guys Beejay and Joel, and suddenly we’re in a blue-carpeted room with Madam Sirleaf. Charles was allowed two prepared questions regarding Unification Day, he wasn’t sure we would get a chance to speak. As she was taking off her microphone, we took a chance and presented her with this photo of Broad St in Monrovia, c 1977. Just downstairs from where I am writing this on the roof of the Palm Hotel.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between photographs and self-identity, especially concerning my dad’s images and my childhood, but I’m finding that it also applies to this country. In the past week we’ve talked to many people whose photos were lost during the war. If the rebels saw pictures of you – photos, ID cards – looking healthy, happy or wealthy, they assumed you were part of the government. You were killed. People destroyed their photos to save lives. They were burned or buried – along with any record of a peaceful past.
Ma Ellen looked at the image and said, “We need photos like this to show what this country once was. I urge you to send all your images to us…” I said I’ll send a package. “I’m serious,” she said. “So am I.” Dad, I hope it’s ok that I just agreed to donate all your photos to the National Museum…
Yeah, people always say the world is so small, but 3 days of constant travel makes you realize how big it is.
Stepping off the plane onto the tarmac at Robertsfield, the smell that hit us first. Forest fire and a rich, musty dampness. A giant UN helicopter sits at rest. I told the customs lady at the tiny airport that we were kids here and she smiled big. “You are welcome.” Entry couldn’t have gone smoother. Our bags showed up. We barely even got hassled by all the dudes out front, as pasty white as we are. Our main man Mickey was there to meet us in a beat up red forerunner. I know this place. Suddenly we’re not only in Liberia, but we’re also in our old neighbourhood. First stop the grocery store on the Firestone property for supplies; eggs bread, cheese, and a flat of Club beer. The Lebanese owner overseeing the operation was happy to see us spending our money. (Although we didn’t pay $23 for Special K.) Down the road, past the airport, past the turn off to the compound where we used to live (we will visit there soon) and onto the red dirt road past Charlesville and to the gates of LIBR –(Liberian Institute of Biomedical Research) that will be our base for the month. We meet Musa, Othello, and Joe and set up camp in the second house, a red brick bungalow with screens for windows, empty except for a few pieces of furniture and the beds Musa has arranged for us. Down the road is the research station that once housed dozens of chimpanzees, but now sits dilapidated and chimpless except for a few statues that welcome you. (The chimps have been released onto nearby islands.) I feel better now that we’ve set camp and my mind movies are now becoming real. All that imagining is hard work. Ceiling fans spin as I sweat. This seems like a good place to make a documentary about ‘77, just need some 2010 mod-cons like internet and phones…
I’m half stoked, half scared shitless. This afternoon, me and my little brother Andrew are finally returning to Liberia. It’s a trip I’ve been thinking about for 30 years.
We lived in Liberia from 1976-79. My dad worked for Exchem, a company that manufactured explosives for mining, and shotgun shells. (More on that later…) As kids, Liberia was paradise – endless beaches, thick jungle, giant insects. We had a chimp.
During that time, my dad also made a lot of photographs. An amazing collection of images I know played an crucial role in shaping who I am. (Maybe even more so than the experience itself…) For years after, I proudly showed anyone/everyone this battered manilla envelope of my dad’s b&w prints – photos that told a story of this almost mythical childhood.
Our family left Liberia just months before President Tolbert was killed in a public execution. Two horrific civil wars would soon follow, devastating a country and its people.
This afternoon at 5PM, I’m going back. We’re gonna make new photographs. We’re gonna make a film. I’m don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, and I sure don’t know what I’m going to find.
MAY 1, 2010