For Canadian brothers Jeff and Andrew Topham, growing up in Liberia in the 1970s was idyllic – jungle adventures, endless beaches, and even a pet chimp. They discovered their love for photography early on from their father who took countless photographs documenting his family’s life, and unknowingly, a history of a nation that would soon be nearly destroyed.
Jeff and Andrew returned to Liberia in 2010 for the first time in 30 years, to retrace the story, and indeed retake the photos of their childhood. What they discovered was a Liberia nearly unrecognizable to them, ravaged by two decades of civil war and lacking one of the most basic elements of the human experience: photographs.
We first met Jeff last year at PCFF2012’s closing night, when we screened the trailer for the documentary that was the result of that trip in 2010 – Liberia ’77. We invited Jeff to speak about the evolution of the Liberia documentary – into a photo repatriation project that saw he and his brother collecting over 2000 photos from expats all over the world.
Jeff, his brother Andrew, and his producer Melanie recently returned to Liberia to mount a photo exhibition in the National Museum, a run down old building that had seen better days. They spent the better part of their first week there restoring the second floor of the museum – fixing the floors, painting the walls, and hanging their photos. On opening night they waited – and then welcomed a full house of guests, including important government dignitaries to revisit Liberia’s past and look ahead to its future.
We caught up with Jeff in Costa Rica and his producer Melanie Wood in Vancouver, to talk about the project and their most recent trip back to Liberia.
PCFF: In three words, tell us what Liberia is about?
Melanie Wood: Self-awareness, culture, connection.
Jeff Topham: Photography, connection, responsibility.
PCFF: What was your inspiration for the project?
JT: My father’s photographs. When I first started this project, I was interested in the connection between photography and memory. I had amazing memories of living in Liberia as a kid in the ‘70s. But I started questioning how many of them were actually my own memories and how much of it was a result of my dad’s photos. So we decided to go back to re-shoot his photos, that was one of the original ideas of the project – but then all kinds of other things happened…
People began showing up. Literally out of nowhere. The Topham’s hoped to locate their former housekeeper James, and instead, his son Jefferson found them. They discovered the devastation caused by two decades of civil war, and suddenly their journey took on a whole new meaning.
Photo credit: Andrew Topham
PCFF: Now that the film has screened around the world, tell us about the reach and impact of Liberia ’77 in Canada and beyond.
JT: I’ve been amazed at the reaction we’ve received from all over the planet – to see that so many other people held Liberia in such a special place in their hearts. I think in returning to Liberia, I did the trip that many others wished they could have. So many people left Liberia because of the wars, and there were also many ex-pats and travellers who spent time there before the conflicts who have never been back because it’s been a country in such rough shape. So that’s been pretty emotional.
MW: We have had feedback and pictures from all around the world. I had no idea so many people had been in Liberia. What’s been so interesting is that the Liberia ’77 website has become such a crucial part of this whole project, its not just about the film anymore.
JT: Absolutely, I think the more important impact has been the photo repatriation project. To be able to start a collection of pre-war images and make them accessible to people who may have lost photos, or may even have never seen Liberia before the conflict has been pretty rewarding. And to actually return a printed collection of images to the National Museum in Monrovia, so that local people can see them in real life (not just on the internet) has been pretty cool. I hope that the collection continues to grow.
MW: I hope it will inspire a new generation of Liberians to take pride in the revival of their culture.
PCFF: You were most recently in Liberia in November, and this time, you took your father John with you. What was that experience like, showcasing the photos at the National Museum?
JT: When we started I could never have predicted that 2 1/2 years later we’d be taking a collection of photos back to Monrovia. We worked really hard to fix up the museum, fixing floors, painting walls, and hung 100 prints for a Thursday night opening. We didn’t know how it was all going to work out, but it did. We had a packed opening night. People said they hadn’t seen that many people in the museum, in well, ever… It was amazing to see people get excited about the photos. Many of the images were of the streets right outside, but 30 years ago. And in a place where art and culture are not necessarily high on the list of priorities when it comes to the rebuilding process, it was pretty easy to see how important stuff like this is.
photo credit: Jeff Topham
MW: The museum exhibition really was great. It looked professional – which is a hard thing to accomplish in a short time in Liberia. People loved seeing the photos, people have been talking about the photos, people have been connecting with the photos.
PCFF: Given the deep personal connection many people have had to the film and to the photos, what do you hope audiences take away from Liberia ’77?
MW: I hope it will show others around the world that individuals can make a difference somewhere, somehow. That it’s always worth a try.
JT: I hope it will just get people to think about how closely we are connected to everyone on this planet, and how important photography is in making these connections.
PCFF: After all the connections, the joys, the hard moments, what has been the most rewarding part of this experience?
MW: I really feel proud that we were able to gather pre-war photos and return them to the country in a way that now many Liberians can access them. Having those photos hanging in the National Museum right now, as you read this, makes me feel I’ve accomplished something worthwhile.
JT: I think taking my dad’s photos from out of slide trays and boxes in the basement where nobody would ever see them, and turning them into a project that hopefully has made an impact on a larger scale has been the most rewarding To see my dad’s photos on the wall the National Museum of Liberia is pretty cool. He even made Time Magazine…
And to see what started as something so personal – I just wanted to go back to my childhood – turned into something much bigger than myself. I think there’s a good lesson in there somewhere…
PCFF: So what’s next?
MW: Foncie’s Photos … yes another photography project. Yes another request for photos to be uploaded to our website. And yes, another attempt to reclaim cultural heritage and stories … this time here at home.
JT: See, Melanie’s got it all figured out….For me, this is the big question… Liberia ‘77 has been such a passion project for the last 3 years, I’m not sure whatever comes next will be able to measure up. Making a documentary is so much work – you really have to care deeply about your subject to get it done, so I’ve got to find that next story that makes my heart hurt – in a good way. If you’ve got any good ideas, I’d love to hear them…
PCFF: Something tells us inspiration will strike…
JT: You know, it’s funny. Inspiration strikes at the craziest times. I know it’s probably been said in many a yoga class, but I think it’s true. When you’re doing the thing you’re supposed to be doing, the world around you definitely nods in agreement. Countless times during this project, the right people showed up at the right time, doors and windows opened, and even signs, well, became signs. Even today, lost in Costa Rica, I’m still getting the feeling I’m on the right road…
photo credit: Jeff Topham
PCFF: Life shows you the way, doesn’t it? Ok – one last question for both of you. PCFF 2013 is about big, bold, mind-bending curiosity. So – what makes you curious?
JT: What makes a good photograph – whatever happened to Eddy Grant – why do people do what they do – why do I sneeze in the sun – how do I make the best risotto – where does passion come from – what goes on in Scandinavia – what is charisma – do the questions ever stop.
MW: That’s easy. Everything.