Tag Archives: Monkey

Two Photographers’ Mission to Retrace a Lost Liberia

Jeff and Andrew Topham were five and three, respectively, when their father’s job moved them from the Yukon, Canada to just outside of Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia, in 1976, four years before a military coup and two subsequent civil wars would devastate the West African nation. The boys lived in what they remember as paradise: endless beaches, thick jungles and countless adventures with their pet chimp named Evelyn. Their father, John, documented this time with thousands of photographs, inspiring a love for photography and filmmaking in both brothers.

In May 2010, the Tophams—now photographers themselves—returned to Monrovia to see what had become of their childhood home. “Our original idea was to revisit and re-shoot the influential and iconic photos of our childhood,” says Jeff Topham. What began as a personal exploration of their youth turned into a documentary film project titled Liberia 77 after the Tophams realized that many of the citizens they encountered did not own any photographs. “I was really interested in the connection between photography and memory,” Topham says. “How much my dad’s photographs influence my memory and what was actually real.”

Although they had seen images of the trouble Liberia had experienced in the last 20 years, the Tophams’ understanding changed after hearing stories of the fighting from citizens who had known their family. “You can read about those stories, but when you are actually sitting with someone and they are telling you first hand, it seems to hit a lot harder,” Topham says. “I think the emotional impact was definitely bigger than the physical.”

Exchem ID

John Topham’s Exchem ID. Many Liberians got rid of of their work ID cards to stay alive during the civil war.

The most staggering realization, which became the central focus of Liberia 77, was the absence of pictures. “The fact that nobody we encountered had any photographs, to me, was remarkable,” Topham says. During the civil wars, the possession of photographs—even on job identification cards—meant a person had money, a fact that could cause one to lose his or her life. Many people would get rid of them just to survive. “People hadn’t seen photos of Liberia from before the wars,” Topham says. “We had this stack of photographs from my dad that we were using as reference, and they almost became this stack of historical documents.”

During one part of Liberia 77,  Liberian photojournalist Sando Moore asks, “If you don’t know where you came from, how can you know where you are going?” That poignant questions speaks to the heart of the Tophams’ film: to give Liberian citizens a connection to their past in order to grow and reconstruct their future. “The fact that the country was destroyed over time, but was also built over time—I think to give people just a sense of history and of time passing is important,” Topham says.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was inaugurated for a second term today, also spoke briefly for the documentary. “I wish those who have photographs of our national existence find a way to keep them because at some point we will need to establish, re-activate our museum,” she says. “The only thing that could capture for the young people Liberia’s road from independence to where we are today would be if we could gather good photographs that rarely depict that. I hope those of you who are skilled in this and those of you who have all these years been able to keep these photographs, make sure you able us to copy them so we have our children know their own country.”

Since leaving Liberia at the end of last spring, and on the plea from President Sirleaf, the brothers have done just that. They’ve been collecting photographs from around the world  to help create a photographic archive for the people of Liberia at the National Museum in Monrovia. The Tophams have collected nearly 700 photographs to date, and they are looking for funding to return to Monrovia this fall to stage an exhibit and hand the pictures of peace over to the museum.

Liberia 77 has been shown on Canadian television and film festivals around the world. Read more about the project here. If interested in donating pre-war photographs of Liberia, click here. To learn more about the Tophams’ Indie Go-Go Fund Raising Platform, click here

TIME Picks the Most Surprising Photos of 2011

The year 2011 brought us dramatic and unexpected images from some of the world’s major news events, including the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, the violent end of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s rule and the humiliating tweet that ruined New York Representative Anthony Weiner’s career. But beyond the widely seen and iconic images that accompanied the year’s biggest events, like the death of Osama bin Laden and the shooting of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, were unusual, equally astonishing and startling images that rested at the periphery of the news. A cat with two faces, rail tracks buckled by the shifting earth after a quake in New Zealand, the police rescue of a girl held hostage by her father, a suicidal bride and beautiful, abstract images taken from space by an astronaut photographer — these are just a few of the compelling and surprising images to have emerged beyond the main news cycle this year. Here, LightBox looks back at a small selection of the underreported, improbable and astounding images that caught the attention of TIME’s photo editors.

The Body Beautiful: Arno Rafael Minkkinen’s Self-Portraits

For Arno Rafael Minkkinen, nudity is akin to spirituality. “I don’t want to be seen as a nudist,” he says. “But there is something about how close you get to the act of creation by walking around by yourself in some stretch of forest in Finland, with nothing on, looking for a photograph, climbing rocks and moving around like a monkey. Bared assed and just digging your toes into the soft earth, you really feel like you’ve been created.”

Over the past forty years that sense of freedom has compelled him to photograph himself in a variety of scenarios: sometimes curled up on a sandy beach, other times dangling off the edge of a cliff, always naked as the day he was born. The sites change constantly, but Minkkinen routinely becomes part of the landscape, connecting body and nature in the most surreal ways. In one shot taken in Nauvo, Finland, he hunches over in a lake so that his dirtied back resembles a log or rock emerging from the water. In another—taken in Stranda, Norway—he balances on a tree so that his leg and thigh form a branch extending from the trunk. “There is no age to the picture when it is just the landscape and the body,” he says. “They could be reality from 1305 because of the nudity.”

Born in Helskini in 1945, Minkkinen believes his affinity for nature—and, more specifically, water—reflects his Finnish roots. Another deep-seated influence is that he was born with a cleft palate. “My mother had been hoping for a princess girl and I was the total opposite of that,” he says. “I always felt like an affront to her beauty.” Doctors corrected the cleft palate as best they could, but with results that fall far short of today’s possibilities. “Surely someone who is missing a limb or who is deformed in a really horrible way has to have it a lot worse than my mouth. But a mouth is what you kiss with, eat with, speak with. That’s where people look when they watch you.”

Minkkinen, who immigrated to the United States with his family when he was six years old, rarely features his face in photographs. Even so, he still describes them as “nude self-portraits.” In the same way that Alfred Stieglitz took “portraits” of his wife Georgia O’Keefe that only featured her hands, Minkkinen sees his body as an entry point to humanity. That he’s shot them over four decades adds to the sense of autobiography. “I put my face in there every once in a while just to remind the viewers that it is me,” he says. “They have to know I’m the one who is making the picture.”

Arno Rafael Minkkinen is a Massachusetts-based artist and photographer. See more of his work here

William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook