The photographer Andreas Herzau was in Liberia for the first time 25 years ago. A civil war had been raging in the West African country for seven years. It could not be ended until another seven years later, in 2003. Millions of people were fleeing the fighting at the time. Herzau wanted to document this exodus and its causes with his pictures.
Usually that’s it for him. “It doesn’t often happen that I return several times to a place where I’ve already taken photos,” writes Andreas Herzau in the text accompanying his photo book “Liberia”. In this case it was different: In 2005 Herzau was again in the country that was just preparing for the first democratic elections after the civil war.
As he recalls, the first doubts about what he was doing came over him at the time: In the decade between his two stays in Liberia, he had photographed in various war and crisis areas. “I came to realize that I, too, tend to look primarily for the problem: the war casualties, the mass graves, the damage caused by civil wars and, not to forget, the poverty.”
For a long time, Herzau also took pictures that confirmed how bad things are in Africa
Under the guise of humanitarian education, photographers like him would travel to these countries and report on circumstances that are actually known in principle. “Our pictures – including mine – constantly confirm that everything is bad, if not hopeless.” To prove this, Herzau shows in the book “Liberia” a few pages of contact prints of his photo negatives from back then, which depict the war misery – a self-accusation also in pictures. “I believe that the cementing effect of photographic victim reporting is still accepted because it is simple.”
In the same year that Andreas Herzau was in Liberia for the second time, the Kenyan journalist Binyavanga Wainaina published in the prestigious American literary magazine Grant his long legendary text “How to write about Africa”. It is a cynical instruction manual for people in the so-called western world who write about Africa: “Never show the picture of a modern African,” it says. “The starving African woman, who drags herself half-naked from camp to camp, must definitely not be missing. Her children have flies in the corners of their eyes and hunger bellies …” It spans three pages, the text is a brilliant bundling of African clichés that Wainaina hit in the head of those who produce it. One of these clichés is that of the noble savage.
“How to write about Africa” precedes Herzau’s “Liberia” as an introduction, and his book ends with the German translation of the Philippika. In between, Andreas Herzau presents the honorable result of his attempt to do it differently. In “Liberia” he does not want to show the obvious downsides, but neither does he want to indulge in the scenery of beautiful landscapes, folkloric backdrops and wildly romantic safari bliss. Herzau shows everyday life.
People go about their work, play sports, go out.
There are mostly beach and big city scenes. The capital Monrovia is ugly from an architectural point of view, and it doesn’t look particularly functional in the photographs. Andreas Herzau has photographed many wall paintings that use the gray concrete as a canvas. One would like to learn more about the pictures, about their possible social function.
People go about their work, play sports, go out. There are pictures in which the portrayed present themselves self-confidently, others seem as if people do not notice the camera or ignore them. In a number of photographs, people can see their poverty and the simplicity of their living conditions. But that’s not why they are bleak images. Instead, many – not all – have a certain ease. And a pleasant casualness.
Andreas Herzau: Liberia. With an essay by Binyavanga Wainaina. Nimbus Verlag, Wädenswil 2021. 146 pages, 32 euros.