You’re an uncle!” I heard my mom shout through the tiny earpiece of my cellphone. “Yukiko had Emmalyn early this morning.” I had to plug my other ear in order to hear her correctly as I stared out from behind metal bars into a chaotic sea of concrete, tarps, and corrugated steel as a pair of roosters looked right back at me chuckling to themselves. I will always remember the date, August 9th, 2011, when I became an uncle, standing in the printing press room at the New Democrat as a giant diesel-fed generator rumbled below my feet, hour after hour, supplying electricity to the building. At that moment I had spent a little over a week embedded in Liberia’s most highly recognized newspaper working one-on-one with Abbas Dulleh, the News and Photo Editor at the New Democrat.
Unlike any student I’ve worked with, Abbas, who I jokingly called, “the Mayor of Monrovia,” is a three-time Liberian Photographer of the Year, father of two, and reporter in one of the most intense post-conflict countries that I have ever come to know. Exiled from his country, while civil war tore it apart, Abbas spent five years in the early-2000’s in Ghana where he wrote for a refugee magazine called “Exile News.” For two weeks I had the privilege to shadow Abbas, teaching photography and learning the important lesson of patience and reverence.
The smell of newsprint and ink welcomed me to the offices everyday before walking out together to cover the executive branch of the Liberian government. From anti-corruption news conferences and election preparations, to University students and the Liberian National Football Team, Abbas brought me to otherwise inaccessible situations. Every day he surprised me with an assignment, and everyday I surprised him with a new set of photographic challenges. Together we began to build from the ground up a digital workflow from image capture to print. Together we developed the visual language by controlling light and telling stories. Together we wandered out that door everyday from opposite sides of the world to teach one another a lesson from our home.
Walking out into the streets of Monrovia, was always a beautiful cacophony of vibrant color, overwhelming chatter and car exhaust, and peaceful moments of Liberian life unfolding piece by piece in every corner and inch of pavement. However, unlike any other place I have been fortunate enough to visit, never have I experienced such frustration and hesitation to take a photograph. Maybe as the result of years of civil war, and a culture of distrust for your neighbor, photographing on the streets could easily devolve from peaceful to violent in the blink of an eye. It became close to impossible to take a photograph on the street without confrontation.
Whether on the back of a motorbike, or following in lock step through the streets, I always felt a sense of safety with Abbas despite the hard stares of curiosity and occasional glares. However, once the rigid walls of self-defense and self-preservation are broken down, Liberians will overwhelm you with care and genuine curiosity, as was the case with a number of university students studying Geology and Mining Engineering at the University of Liberia Kendall campus. Living through the treachery of the Liberian civil war, these students witnessed the darkest days of their country, and look for new direction for the future of their country. What that direction is, I do not know. The two weeks I spent in Liberia were too brief and have instead only left me with a void of questions that can only be answered when I return. There is much work still yet to be done and many friends to return to who will help me answer these questions.