“In Liberia, I found very palpable themes I grew passionate about. Themes such as memory, resilience, and generational transition. But what emerges from all these themes is our constructions as human beings, our determinisms… and how history influences our destinies and paths.”
Elliott Verdier is a Paris-based photographer, whose long-term documentary projects explore notions of identity, memory, and resilience.
Captured over the course of two years, Reaching for Dawn examines the psychological cost of the brutal civil war that devastated the West African nation of Liberia for nearly two and a half decades.
EV: This is the story of a small piece of land nestled on the shores of West Africa, a long-neglected land of stifling mangroves, glutted with water and malaria, where the dense jungle sheltered a few isolated tribes.
A land where, in the early 19th century, the government of the United States established, without ever naming it as such, its first colony. Baptized Republic of Liberia, it bears in its name, the cynical foundations of its adulterated history.
EV: At a time when an increasing number of former black slaves, now free and literate, appeared on the streets of the Union’s intellectual capitals, the white population felt challenged in its racial, cultural and moral ideals. Nipping the problem in the bud, the decision was taken to ship off hundreds of brown-skinned men and women to this land that allegedly belonged to their ancestors.
EV: Impregnated with Christian and capitalist morals, the deportees became loyal agents of the US and re-produced a system that once oppressed them.
The enslavement of the indigenous populations by the newcomers, prompting the putrefaction of post-colonial society and the negation of fundamental human values, fomented the tensions feeding the tragedy that has developed over the past two centuries, only to reach the epitome of savagery: the Liberian civil war (1989-2003).
EV: ‘The love of liberty brought us here’, the national motto, boasting local pride, is despairingly attached to a mystification erected on rejection, domination, and servitude. Of the bloody conflict that decimated Liberia, its population does not speak. No proper memorial has been built, no day is dedicated to commemoration.
EV: The country, still held by several protagonists of the carnage, refuses to condemn its perpetrators. Among them, Prince Johnson, former warlord, and infamous torturer is now a senator, while the recently elected Vice-President is none other than Jewel Howard-Taylor, ex-wife, of war criminal Charles Taylor (only convicted for his crimes in Sierra Leone).
EV: This deafening silence, which resonates internationally, denies any possibility of social recognition or collective memory of the massacres, immuring Liberia in an endless feeling of abandonment and drowsy resignation. The trauma carved into the population’s flesh is crystallized in the society’s weak foundations, still imbued with an unsound Americanism, and bleeds onto a new generation with a hazy future.
EV: The wind of hope blown by the 2018 peaceful and democratic elections that put former ghetto child turned soccer star Georges Weah to power, is already falling through the cracks of his apathetic governance.
Liberia is suffering a long, anonymous night. The photographic and audio work explores the mechanisms of its resilience and the invisible resorts of psychic trauma in war. Without Manichaeism, it unveils the eye and loosens the tongue of these women, these men, victims or perpetrators, on their damaged fate, made of nightmares in the daylight.
EV: The difficulty was to transcribe the invisible, latent trauma that weighs on Liberia. So I wanted to give the series an atmosphere that would capture this suffocating silence. Of course, I would like to see these images lead to better recognition of what happened, but that’s a bit of naive optimism. So I just hope that I have been able to pull this story out of anonymity, these lives that flow away from our eyes, to keep a trace, a memory…
Text and images © Elliott Verdier
Reaching for dawn, the monograph was recently published by Dunes Editions
A collector’s edition which will include an exclusive signed and numbered framed art print will be available in limited numbers at Polycopies, during Paris Photo 2022.