Photography is connection.
Photography is history.
Photography is life.

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Project Updates

News and information about the Liberia ‘77 project.

Houston… we have no problems.

Liberia’77 takes home the Platinum Award + The Houston Film Critics Society Award for Best Feature Documentary at the Houston International Film Festival. Huzzah!

Producer Melanie Wood and Director Jeff Topham

smile in Texas.

Final Cut.

For those who have been asking, Liberia ’77 (official title!) is, as they say, ‘in the can’. Early reviews from family and friends have been positive. (“I loved it – but I didn’t love your beard.” – Jeff’s Mom) But the real test will be the eyes of those who don’t know me and my brother. We’re now in a bit of a holding pattern as we wait hopingly on word a few film festivals (Hot Docs, Tribeca, DOXA) before it hits the airwaves on Knowledge (BC), TVO (Ontario) and Access (Alberta) later in the year.  And hopefully it will be online sooner than later.

Watch this space for more info. In the meantime, we’re excited to be working with the talented Sean Embury at FULSCRN to build a spiffy new website to house the Liberian Photo Repatriation Project, which will move into full swing once the film is released. So yeah, there’s where we’re at. Again, thanks to everyone for all the support and encouragement as we’ve travelled this path – I can’t say it enough. I look forward to your seeing the final cut. I hope you’ll dig it. – Jeff

Keep the home fires burnin’

When we first started vancouver out on this journey, one of me and my brother’s main goals was to recreate some of our dad’s iconic family images from the 70s. With this idea came attached a fairly big fear — that the photos that represented such a happy time would be replaced by not-so-happy images, and that this would also affect our cherished memories.

It didn’t really happen.

Once we got over the initial shock we found that the new photos instead seemed to add something to the originals. I’m not exactly sure why yet. Maybe it’s a deeper understanding of the country and what happened, or a deeper appreciation of the idyllic world all kids occupy. Or maybe it might be that my dad actually made photographs of peace and stability – something I so often take for granted.

Guys with Guns

We were in Liberia because my dad worked for Exchem, a subsidiary of Canadian chemical company C-I-L. (You might know their paint.) The Exchem plant supplied explosives to a couple of big iron ore mines in the country’s interior at Bong and Nimba. They also manufactured shotgun shells for the West African and European sporting market, i.e. hunting and skeet shooting. On the weekends, armed with fine Italian 12 gauges and a load of work perk ammo, my dad and his workmates would head out into the bush to hunt for pigeon. Local kids were hired as guides and retrievers, ensuring a Sunday night dinner of my mom’s great squab stew.

Cut to 5 weeks later…

Sure, the original idea was to keep this journal current during our Liberian shoot, but as internet access was as spotty as my bug bitten feet, it just didn’t happen. New media in Liberia is still pretty new.

A bunch of stuff happened in the last month – about 80 hours of video and 5000 photos worth. It’s a lot to process; digitally, physically, and emotionally. So this space will now become a testing place. For stories, for ideas, for images – and mostly for trying to figure out what this trip, and subsequent film, is all about.

But today it’s a place for thanks. Firstly, to all the beautiful people we met in Liberia – those who shared their stories and homes and hearts. Every new day brought someone amazing.

And a thanks to those reading this. For reading this. For all the encouragement, for reaching out and reinforcing my sometimes shaky belief in this value of this project. I’ve gotta admit I’m still not sure what’s driving it, and more often than not, I’m wracked by the self-indulgence and egocentricity of it all. But for it to work, I know it’s got to be bigger than me, and thanks to you guys, I’m starting to believe it just might be.

And an especial thanks to my big little brother Andrew and my friend (and colleague) Melanie, who sweated their asses off for the last month, and put up with my overheated brain (see above re: self-indulgence, ego and insecurity) to not only make a remarkable trip happen, but to also record it.

So yeah, sitting here tonight at the Sunset Grill in Kits Beach in Vancouver, one of the top spots on the planet, I’m thankful for a lot of things — for food (cheeseburgers, especially), for drinkable tap water, for my lucky life, and even for the internet — and I know that the end of this journey is just the beginning of another.

Keep you posted.

Jeff T.

The Ballad of Andy and Evelyn – pt 1

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.

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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…

Meet the Prez

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…

Dispatch from the Compound

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…

A Return Ticket

I’m half stoked, half scared shitless. This afternoon, me and my little brother Andrew are finally returning to Liberia. It’s a commercial actors 2015 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 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