Diary, Monday 17th May 1982:
Lungi Airport is situated across the main estuary from Freetown itself and our bus had to cross this by ferry, so it was some time before we had wound our way through the streets of the capital. There was much hustle and bustle, an extraordinary mixture of activity; street traders and open markets everywhere; lots of noise and that stifling heat that makes your clothes cling.
In 1982 I had a unique opportunity to spend a month in Sierra Leone. By then I already had the photography bug and had been learning to print in our tiny college darkroom; in relation to the work that I was doing towards my business degree, I was beginning to spend more time in there than I should. I had recently won some prize money in a major London photography competition and this enabled me to buy my first semi-professional camera and a couple of lenses. I was on a roll with it and now here was a chance of getting my first real photographic documentary experience, through my college launching an international field trip to this West African country, one of the poorest in the world. Apart from the typhoid shots and the malaria pills, I don’t think our group had any idea what to expect - looking back, I certainly didn’t.
Diary, Tuesday 18th May 1982:
Photography is very difficult at times - too many people in the way and they are quite suspicious, bordering on hostility in some cases. This proved quite disheartening for a first attempt. This was to change as I found out while walking around the city later on. Then, many people would volunteer themselves as models, “Hsss… snap me, snap me!”
I can see with hindsight that my approach was completely naïve, which may have put me in good stead photographically as I was able to approach my subjects in an innocent, non-judgemental manner. We had done superficial research on the country, its constitution and economy and the various ethnic groups, the Temne and Mende, Muslims, Christians and the Lebanese. With a couple of weeks' experience on the ground I suppose we became vaguely aware of underlying tensions, of the frustrations caused by corruption and governmental shortcomings. However, we would speculate in hushed tones about the notorious secret societies like schoolchildren telling ghost stories around a camp fire; President Siaka Stevens’ evening motorcade along Lumley Beach seemed just a tourist spectacle. Although we did get around, I wonder how much we managed to get under the surface of life in this troubled country.
(Click on image to enlarge)
I had little idea of the realities behind the Sierra Leone’s post-colonial government until much later I read Aminatta Forna’s brilliant and harrowing memoir “The Devil That Danced on the Water”. By then, the country had also been ravaged by over ten years of brutal civil war. All I saw was a harsh and beautiful place whose people were spirited and determined, even in the face of oppressive poverty. The experience irrevocably shaped my photography but now I still have to wonder how many of these children would later be caught up in conflict - which remains for me a tragedy.