JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Dunes Editions (here). Hardcover (23.5 x 32 cm), 152 pages, with 66 color and black and white photographs. Includes essays by Gaël Faye and Leymah Gbowee. Design by Marion Denoual. Cover illustration by Sacha Von Villard. In an edition of 750 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: The civil war in Liberia, a small country on the shores of West Africa, raged for 14 years, between 1989 and 2003. A quarter of a million people died (8% of its population), while thousands more were mutilated and raped. Many more fled the country.
While the war was officially over nearly two decades ago, Liberia’s struggles have never truly ended. The collective trauma has left a large wound. A new photobook by the French photographer Elliott Verdier movingly captures the people and the country in the aftermath of the war. It was released by a new publishing house, Dunes Editions.
The founding of Liberia in the early 1800s was motivated by the domestic politics of slavery and race in the United States, when a group of white Americans founded the American Colonization Society (ACS), which was dedicated, with mixed motives, to resettling freeborn Blacks and emancipated slaves in West Africa. In 1847, Liberia declared its independence from ACS, and became the first independent nation in Africa (and the second after Haiti’s Black republic in the world at that time). Ironically, the newcomers set up the same type of society that had oppressed them back in America. Over a century and a half the tensions (amplified by ethnic divisions, corruption, and economic disparities) inevitably escalated, leading to a civil war.
As a photobook, Reaching for Dawn is beautifully produced, its design executed with drama and elegance. The illustration on the rich black cover shows a fragmented silhouette of a young man – his face looks calm as he gazes out into space, with his left hand squeezing his arm while two other arms gently touch and embrace his invisible body. It is a striking introduction to the book, both somber and gentle. The book has an exposed spine and easily lays flat. It opens with essays by Gaël Faye, a rapper and writer, and Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist and Nobel Prize laureate for her work bringing together Christians and Muslims. Their writings set the stage for the visual narrative that follows.
On his first trip to Liberia, Verdier didn’t take any photographs, and instead he talked to people and tried to understand the country. He spent two years there, and his photographs were made as he travelled to different parts of the country, “from the diamond mines of Gbarpolu to the fishing harbors of Harper and through the immense slum of Westpoint.” He notes that “Of the bloody conflict that decimated Liberia, its population does not speak. No proper memorial has been built, no day is dedicated to commemoration.”
Verdier combines full bleed black and white photographs of the country, beautifully printed in silver on uncoated black paper, with color portraits shot with a large format camera. He also recorded conversations with the people he encountered, both victims and perpetrators, and their voices are included in the book through excerpts elegantly printed on fragile transparency paper.
A photograph of a courtroom with a Liberian flag on the wall behind the podium and words above it reading “let justice be done to all” opens the book. It is followed by an image of an abandoned boat anchored in the sand – perhaps a symbolic connection to the past. Then there is a picture of a young man, his head emerging above a calm body of water.
Striking full bleed black photographs printed with silver introduce us to Liberia’s landscape and environment: a group of people getting off a small boat by the coast dotted with palm trees, densely growing tropical forest, roofs of the houses by a small fishing harbor, an abandoned car taken over by nature, deforested areas. The shots of scarred nature serve as a metaphor for a traumatized nation. Printed on black paper, these images also echo the title, as the light of day has still yet to come. Transparency papers overlap these images with haunting memories and nightmares. “After they killed my brother I joined the revolution war, myself too I began to kill, I can say it was on a Saturday,” reads one of them. The fragility of the paper resonates with the words. The writings are placed with a lot of space around them, often in freestyle, letting them stand on their own, but also allowing the reader to pause.
Verdier’s portraits are delicate and gentle, depicting people with dignity and respect. One of them is a portrait of a woman, Martha, standing barefoot as she looks straight in the camera, laundry hanging behind her. A couple of pages later, a young man named Adama with teardrops tattooed under his eye, is captured deep in his thoughts, while his mother rests her arm on his shoulder. And then a portrait of Mohammed in a light blue shirt sitting by the grave at an abandoned cemetery. These images, calm and serene, transcend deep sorrow and pain.
As we move through the book, there is a portrait of Jackie praying in the oldest Liberian church, where a window mosaic reflects the light, adding to the sacred atmosphere. The generous amount of white space around the images makes them stand out. The photograph on the right is a part of a broken chair in St. Peter’s Church placed against the black background. On 29 July 1990, approximately 600 unarmed men, women and children were murdered there by government soldiers. There is a somber sense of tragedy and grief.
“In the absence of trials, commissions, causes, or even the beginnings of any kind of recognition, the crimes of the past continue to haunt the living and to prevent the dead from resting in peace,” writes Gaël Faye. Going through the images, one might notice that the illustration on the front cover collages elements from several photographs. It is a symbolic act of bringing the people and their pain together in collective healing. A thoughtful yet discreet design element.
Some of the most well known images from Liberia were taken by photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros while they were covering the civil war. They captured the tragic reality and human cost of the war, showing child soldiers, refugees fleeing the war, Liberian militia, and rebel fighters. Hondros’ photo of a shirtless militia commander Joseph Duo leaping for joy after unloading a rocket at rebels became one of the defining images of the war. Hondros found Duo, encouraged him to go back to school and helped pay his tuition. Stories like these help better understand the complicated history of Liberia.
Reaching for Dawn is an excellent example of how the photobook can be used to tell lesser known stories. Verdier’s calm yet forceful photographs document people whose lives might otherwise have been misunderstood or unnoticed. Reaching for Dawn is a book full of intense human empathy. Thoughtfully designed and beautifully produced, it offers nuanced and very human storytelling, inviting us to consider the complex histories of the region. The result is an attentive and engaging photobook.
Collector’s POV: Elliott Verdier does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).