Every story has a beginning, this is mine. I had always enjoyed photography since I could remember, even in childhood. I loved finding natural frames in the landscape, creating windows that peered into beautiful scenes.
When I first moved to West Africa in 1999, I was enthralled by my new home and the surrounding landscapes. Even though that was back in the film days, it was difficult to resist the urge to try to to capture everything. Film was limited to what I brought with me, and developing it required a trip back across the ocean, but I didn’t want to miss seeing my new home with fresh eyes,
Shortly after a grueling trip up-country to my new home, I was informed of an important detail in my adopted country’s history. The first president to take office after the colonial era, understandably had some trust issues regarding foreigners. He warned his people that if a foreigner saw the beauty of their country, and showed it to other foreigners, that outsiders would come and take the land by force. That may sound “paranoid” to North Americans, who aren’t surrounded my many other nations, as is the majority of the world’s population, but land grabbing isn’t new. The result? This mentality was ingrained into the general populace. It meant that having a camera and pointing it at the palm tree-topped mountains or banana trees on the edge of a village weren’t just met with suspicion, the police could become involved. Having my film and/or camera confiscated was a real possibility, in addition to entanglements with authorities that played by a different set of rules entirely.
This unfortunate backdrop put a quick stop to my dream of photographing the exotic landscape of my new home. Occasionally I would try half-heartedly to create a portrait in front of a distant vista, but it didn’t do either one justice, it was a sad compromise.
It wasn’t until I moved back to Guinea in 2007, this time living in the north, instead of the south, that I had a chance to see things differently. Instead of focusing on the background scenery, I chose to focus on the incredible beauty all around me; the people!
I’m not sure what it is about my Maninka sisters and brothers that commands my attention. Is it that they were the rulers of an ancient empire? Or is it their tremendous hospitality and engaging wit?
The best answer I have after all these years is that when I looked into their eye, I saw the face of God. I saw God’s unconditional love for us watching a mother play with her infant son, burying him in kisses and lifting him up in her arms. I had yet to meet her, but I desperately wanted to grab my camera and capture the beauty of their relationship in that moment. I chose not to, in favor of beginning out relationship with greetings instead of clicks. I was rewarded with her friendship as a companion during all my years there.
Multiple times I recall seeing such striking beauty in a face or in a moment that I stopped breathing for a bit, as to not interrupt the precious thing I was witnessing.
It is because of my beloved Maninka sisters and brothers that I discovered the depth and power of photography. I longed for the ability to create connection between my people in my home country and my people in my adopted country.
In my attempts at creating a connection between these unlikely groups, I found myself getting lost in the depths of the eyes, hearts, souls and stories of these dear ones. Their vulnerability with me was a remarkable gift I endeavored to reciprocate.
The portraits you see here represent a much larger community that loved, supported, teased, fed and encouraged me as I labored to learn their language, their culture and their hearts. They also laughed at me quite a bit! They, and so many others you don’t see here, have forever endeared themselves to me.
Thank you for indulging me in honoring them as my inspiration for seeing past surface beauty and digging in to the deep, messy place of hearts and stories. I hope you also get drawn in and are able to experience the beauty of their souls and our oneness in humanity. These are my people.