GROWING UP IN LIBERIA and leaving before the country imploded in 1980, Jeff and Andrew Topham knew it as a place of happy childhood memories frozen in the photographs their father kept. Their return as adult photographers began with the intention to re-document their childhood world and explore the links between memory and photography. It would become so much more.
Out of the documentary they shot called Liberia ’77 grew a project to curate Liberia’s photographic memories that was endorsed by the country’s president herself. The results provoke difficult questions about memory, photography, representation, and the responsibilities to those left behind held by expats who are free to simply get up and go.
I talked with Jeff Topham about the documentary / curation project, as well as the personal issues the siblings’ return to Liberia forced them to confront.
[RS] Where has the material come from? Is it expats like your dad, contributing memories from their time there, or Liberians who left before the war and took images with them? Have you been surprised at unlikely contributors from elsewhere?
[JT] Images are coming from all over the world, Sweden, New Zealand, Saskatchewan… but yeah, I think the biggest group of contributors are definitely North American ex-pats; people who worked in Liberia as teachers, Peace Corps, mining, more than a few missionaries. There’s been a small representation from Liberians who escaped the war, but so many left all their photos behind, not to mention family and friends…
Surprises. I’ve been amazed at how many people just in my home province of BC have a Liberian connection and have uploaded images. For most of my life, I assumed that 9 out of 10 people had never even heard of Liberia — but we’ve been contacted by so many Canadians that actually lived there and had photos. It’s exciting to think about what could happen as the film and project get further out there.
Do you feel that there might be value in similar projects to Liberia ’77 in other countries that have lost much of their pre-war histories, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo?
Yes, I’ve already heard that idea from a number of people. I’d be so happy if this project could serve as an example. And I’m sure there already are similar projects out there.
This whole idea of crowd-sourcing is relatively new, and I’m sure there are probably more efficient ways of doing it. But hopefully people might see what we’re trying to do here, build on it, and make it even better. Ideally, it’d be great to turn the website over to the museum in Monrovia and have Liberians run it.
Are you concerned that the images contributed might reconstruct an unfairly rosy memory of the country through the eyes of its privileged citizens? Do you feel that the project is historically accurate — or that this is even a desired goal?
You know, before we launched the project, I didn’t really think too much about who or where the images would come from. (I was just hoping some might show up!) But as we’ve almost reached 1,000 photos uploaded, yes, there’s definitely — and understandably — a Western bias. So yeah, as far as historical accuracy, it’s a tricky one. For sure, I’d love to see more photos from Liberians, but the fact is, to own a camera and make photos was (and still is) a pretty luxurious art. (Not to mention a computer and access to a website.) And the many Liberians who even had cameras and photos during those days lost them.
So yeah, I’m very aware of the skew, just not sure what to do about it. Just be aware of it, I guess. That said, we’ve received plenty of notes from Liberians old and and young who are moved by the project and the photos. I’d really love to get cameras into the hands of Liberian kids. It’d be great to see a whole new generation of documentary photographers. But maybe that’s another project…
What became of Jefferson (the orphaned son of an old friend, whom Jeff and Andrew had helped with his education) — is he still in school?
Yes, Jefferson is halfway through grade 11. I think he’s doing ok. Communication is hard. Life is hard there. Lines are often spotty in Liberia. Throw in an 8-hour time difference, a 3-second delay on the phone, and a tough Liberian dialect, and it makes talking tough. But yeah, I think he’s ok. He wants a motorbike. But what 16 year-old doesn’t.
In the film, you and your brother grapple with difficult questions of how to decide who to help, how much, and when. What are your thoughts on making these decisions to assist — trying to do good, yet also not be overwhelmed by the scale of the responsibility?
Honestly, I still grapple with it. I was hyper-aware going into this project about the idea of two white Canadian guys going to ‘help Africa’. I know the eye-rolling and skepticism that comes with that — I do it myself. I’ve seen NGOs in Africa where people didn’t even want, or need, to be ‘helped’. I’ve seen wasted money and effort. But at the same time, I’ve also seen amazing work being done in places that definitely needed and wanted help.
I don’t doubt things like water and electricity and roads and schools and medicine. So yeah, I know that photos might seem a little frivolous in a place like Liberia where there are definitely other priorities. But this was the one thing that we could do to make a difference, the thing that felt right.
The journey that you undertook was a very personal reconnection, and clearly massively valuable in learning about the realities of current-day Liberia, as well as leaving you entangled with the stories of the people you met along the way. Do you feel that you came back as a different person to who you were when you left, and if so, in what ways?
If anything, it just made me even more aware of how complicated things are when it comes to being a good human. Everything we do or have done has an impact on someone, somewhere — sometimes good, sometimes not so good. All those clichés are true — and the trip to Liberia sure illuminated them.
Finally, what was your experience of current-day Liberia? Would you encourage others who would like to visit the country to do so? And what advice would you give them?
I’d love people to go to Liberia. Not just you missionaries and journalists. It’s what the country needs. Sure, at this point, it might not exactly be a Capetown vacation, but it’s definitely an adventure. People are beautiful, there’s beautiful land to be explored. Just be patient, open minded, and smile — you’ll be more than ok.
And take some nice photos.
Find out more about the Liberia ’77 photo repatriation project here.