Elliott Verdier’s Reaching for Dawn documents post-war Liberia through large format photography
Over two years, the photographer aimed to visually encapsulate the Liberian landscape and its people. The new book is accompanied by a series of voice recordings detailing the subjects’ stories.
- Jyni Ong
- 13 May 2021
Elliott Verdier knew he wanted to be a photojournalist from a young age. His godfather collected prints and he spent a great deal of his childhood amongst the collection. His godfather, the photographer explains, “shared with me his sensitivity and love for photography,” which spurred Elliott onto study the medium formally. Then, at the age of 19, he had the opportunity to make his first trip as a photographer. It was a trip to Burma, planned by the photography school for the students to create a documentary project during the summer holidays. And for Elliott, it presented the chance to “question my position and subjectivity as a photographer and witness. That led me to what I do today”.
His latest project, Reaching for Dawn – now a book published by Dunes – is Elliott’s latest attempt at such. Two years in the making, the series documents life in the wake of the country’s civil war which took place from 1989 to 2003. Taken with a large format camera, Elliott travelled across the country to find out more on the story. Photographing the diamond mines of Gbarpolu to the fishing harbours of Harper and the slums of Westpoint, the striking series aims to capture the atmosphere of the beautiful country through both colour and monochrome photographs.
“I like to document places on the outskirts of global headlines,” Elliott tells us of what first attracted him to Liberia. There, he found “very present themes” that he is also passionate about; memory, resilience and generational trauma. On his first trip to the West African country, he took no photos, instead getting a feel for the place and shaking off any preconceived notions of what the country might be like as seen from the Western gaze. Talking to people allowed him to start shaping a story that he could tell. He explains on this, “the unspoken trauma (nobody has been judged, no proper memorial has been built, no day is dedicated to commemorate the civil war)”.
Over time, he got to know his subjects and found people were willing to talk about their experiences, “to share, to reveal themselves”. Transporting the weighty large format camera across the country was no mean feat, and Elliott recalls two motorcycle accidents he had in one night. Accidents which occurred “in the middle of nowhere, lost in the bush”. With three people on the bike, carrying the heavy equipment between them, there were moments post-crash when Elliott thought all his work was lost. Luckily, it was not.
In the poignant series, humanity is presented in myriad forms. In one particularly meaningful image, the head of a man emerges from calm and pure water. Elliott comments “as if to symbolise his rebirth. He escapes his past with a blood red reflection, like a haunted version of himself.” The serene image is the most meaningful to the photographer from the whole series; quiet on the surface but hinting to a much more complicated back story. In another image, a photograph is taken in an abandoned cemetery in the centre of Monrovia which is now occupied by child soldiers and other marginalised people. The photograph shows three people just before nightfall who now make their lives there. It’s a striking image, beautifully composed against the clear sky and framing the three protagonists in a powerful light.
“I do not pretend to give a truth, but the one I have perceived” adds Elliott on the subjectivity of his photography. “With the large format camera, I am obliged to discuss with the people I have taken pictures of. I must explain the project to them, they participate by agreeing to pose.” To coincide with this, the series is accompanied by recordings of men and women’s voices – both victims and perpetrators – recounting their respective tales. Their stories continue to have a huge impact on the photographer, nearly a year after the project finished. He ends the interview by saying: “I have not been able to digest this series. My travels, the people and this subject, still affect me a lot.”
GalleryElliott Verdier: Reaching for Dawn (Copyright © Elliott Verdier, 2021)
Elliott Verdier: Reaching for Dawn (Copyright © Elliott Verdier, 2021)
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.