February 17, 2012

Restoring Photographic Memory

"Imagine life with no photographs. No smiling faces. No family snapshots. No record of your past. Welcome to Liberia... When Canadian brothers Jeff and Andrew Topham return to the war-torn West African country of their childhood to re-shoot their father's photos from the 70's, they find a nation whose own photographic history was destroyed by war. Suddenly their tattered envelope of family photos takes on a significance they never could have imagined. Liberia '77 shows how despite time, war, distance and culture, photography connects us all."

Such was the blurb, accompanied by a black and white photo of two young boys and a pet chimpanzee in our Nov/Dec Knowledge Network program guide, enticing me to tune in to the brand new documentary commissioned by the Vancouver-based public access channel.

The documentary first intrigued me because I have had a genuine interest in Africa since I grew up with a friend whose family had immigrated from Zambia. Their stories over the years had woven their way into my subconscious in a way I was not aware of at the time. The connection they had with their homeland was deep and intense, but what I could not have realized was the sense of responsibility they felt towards the troubled country, even after they had moved thousands of miles away from it. Their English grandparents had put down roots there, and the roots had apparently held fast through the family line.

The story also intrigued me due to the fact that the Topham brothers - Jeff is a filmmaker and Andrew is a photographer - are from Vancouver and the elder brother is about my age. The black and white photo of the two brothers (minus the chimp) looked very much like photos of my siblings and I from the same era. Similar hairstyles, similar t-shirts, similar looks of health in the cheeks from a childhood spent outdoors and free.

My husband and eldest son joined me to watch Liberia '77 and it proved to be a riveting two hours for the three of us. As the story unfolded, we moved from a position of reclined comfort to one of perching on the edge of our seats, elbows on knees, fists under our chins. As Jeff and Andrew visited the site of the former compound where their family and the families of the other employees of the Canadian company which made explosives for the mining industry had lived, they interviewed Liberian workers who had worked with their father and asked about their former houseboy James with whom they had been very close as boys. Having left the country in 1979, the Tophams had escaped the effects of the two civil wars. The Liberians they met filled them in with horrific stories about what had happened to the country and its people during the war. In one interview, one of the former company employees describes having to bury his company identity card, a common practise, since having photo i.d. was proof of some kind of wealth to the soldiers and was therefore dangerous to an individual's existence.

The boys do find out what happened to James, and it is not good news. Jeff meets James' wife and thirteen year old son, whose widowed mother is not only too poor to send him to school, but has high hopes that Jeff will help them.

"Some of the events that unfolded were a lot heavier than I was prepared for," says Jeff. "I expected the emotion to come more from seeing the state of the country and my memories being dismantled. What caught me off guard was the sense of responsibility that came with being there."

That sense of responsibility has led to the Liberia '77 Photo Repatriation Project. After a request from the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Liberian President, whom they had the opportunity to meet, the Topham brothers have put out a call to the public to send them images of pre-war Liberia. Many, many important images, images that help to tell the story of a country, were destroyed during the war. Do date, over seven hundred images have been gathered from donors so far, and the brothers plan to return the photos to the National Museum in Monrovia. They are also raising funds to transport themselves and the photos back to Liberia.

"During the filming, we also discovered that much of the country’s photographic record had been destroyed by war.  Historical events, significant people and places, were all but forgotten by many we met, overwhelmed by memories of violence.  We met a whole generation of Liberians who had grown up in a time of conflict, knowing nothing but violence and destruction.  And we learned that many who had photographs of their happy, healthy families were marked for death by rebel soldiers.  To save their lives, people actually burned their own photos, even threw their cameras away. The National Museum was looted - its contents destroyed.  We found it closed and dilapidated, a small remaining collection of the country’s photographs randomly piled and rapidly deteriorating in a corner closet.
We also realized that the envelope of our dad’s photos we carried was more than just a collection of family snapshots of our idyllic ex-pat childhood.  For many Liberians we showed them to, they were rare proof of a once peaceful country – and hope for a brighter future for a country working hard to heal. 
Sando Moore, a Liberian photojournalist who lost all his archives said to us:  "If you don’t know where you came from, how can you know where you are going?”
One more reason I found the documentary so compelling was that it married some very important things: historical identity, artistic integrity, compassion and personal responsibility. It wasn't just 'another sad story' about Africa. I have chosen to support the project by making a small donation. If you are interested in reading (and seeing) more about the Liberia '77 Photo Repatriation Project please visit the website.

My Zambian-born friends return to Africa every winter to help coordinate many worthy projects there, particularly for women caring for Aids orphans. You can find their website here. I have sometimes wondered what it is that compels them so strongly to give so much of themselves to the people of their former homeland. After experiencing Liberia '77, I think I have a bit more understanding of their desire to give back.

The photo is of the Topham brothers with Evelyn, their pet chimpanzee.


  1. Stories like this one always remind me of how blessed I am and how great it is to be an American citizen. I suppose most Canadians feel the same.

    That is quite a worthwhile project. Thank you for giving it attention. The more we know, the better the chances of being involved somehow.

  2. We do feel the same...very lucky. But somehow, there is always some guilt at our good fortune.

  3. wow. i need to look this up and see if i can find it...i am intrigued...i like movies/shows like this...it is def eye opening...and i have a similar response to anita...thanks for the heads up on the project too...

  4. I hope we get the chance to see it over here too....

  5. I know way too many people with that background.
    Ones with a very bad rep from being part of defence forces in former colonies. I know French that were involved in Algeria, Irish and English involved in Zimbabwe. And Dutch and Cape Dutch in SA. The latter scum are mostly in Belgium and south Holland these days. These are people that will never be allowed back to their former homes and it is very unlikely that their kids will either.
    Basically, I'm so very very very wary about such, either in written or any other form. There really is just too much stuff involved.

    1. Of course I forgot about the Judicial Vicar cousin who was with the SMA in Nigeria since the 60s. And a gaggle of nuns also. They do some to balance things out.

    2. Well, I can't disagree with you at there. Nope. The effects of colonization leave nasty scars. However, I do believe that what the Topham brothers are doing is genuine and with good intention...especially since they were asked to do it by the President of the country.
      'Gaggle of nuns...' is that an official term, like a 'murder of crows'? :-) What is the SMA?

    3. this lot; http://smainternational.net/

    4. Okay. I looked it up. My parents have a very good priest friend who is originally from the Congo. We have several African religious working here in Canada. I'm sure they joke about being missionaries to North America :)


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!