Elliott Verdier reflects on the unwritten histories of national trauma

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In his new monograph, Reaching for Dawn, the photographer travels across Liberia, documenting a population living in the aftermath of civil war

The first time French photographer Elliott Verdier travelled to Liberia — a west African nation bordering Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire — he left his camera behind. “It was 2018, and I was documenting conflicts beyond global headlines,” he remembers. “Liberia had just elected a new president. I went [to the country] without my camera so that I could mentally photograph all the images I wanted to take. I didn’t want my images to just look like my idea of modern conflict, and to do that, I had to move past photographing images I had already seen.”

​​Verdier’s second monograph Reaching for Dawn, published by Dunes Editions, documents the uneasy silence across Liberia following two bloody civil wars in 1989-1997 — when Charles Taylor led an uprising against President Samuel Doe — and 1999-2003 when two new rebel groups emerged. The fighting claimed approximately 250,000 lives, and thousands more were mutilated and raped. Recruiting child soldiers was also widespread. However, the majority of those responsible for the atrocities have never been held to account, further complicating the country’s capacity for collective memory. “There are no monuments, no conversations, no commemorative days of remembrance,” Verdier says. “When night falls and the day is over, there is silence; everyone is left to their memories, but nothing is said.”

© Elliott Verdier.

Verdier photographed Reaching for Dawn over two trips in 2019. He travelled across Liberia from the gold and diamond mines of Gbarpolu County to the Port of Harper and the slums of townships such as West Point, Monrovia. In the publication, the Liberian landscape sits between portraits overlaid with quotes — seven from victims of the war and seven from those who perpetrated it. “I found myself having deep and difficult conversations about war-caused trauma,” he says. “The subjects I photographed were eager to break their silence. There is a real stillness around what has happened, but I think the fact I’m an outsider allowed them to comfortably open up and reach out.”

Verdier’s process derives from empathy and awareness. He used a large-format camera, the size of which meant “there were no secrets. I was forced to be aware of each choice,” he says. “Liberians are sensitive about their image, but such an obvious camera helped — I had nothing to hide.”

© Elliott Verdier.
© Elliott Verdier.
© Elliott Verdier.

Verdier wants to distance himself from the long, uncomfortable history of western photojournalism — one he describes as “photographic ethics of another time”. He says that trauma — national and individual — requires a receptacle: a tangible phenomenon on which to focus. Without this, Liberia cannot process its grief, understand it or move on. For Verdier, the role of the photographer is not simply to document but to be a part of this healing — an approach he deems as “the basics” of conflict photography. 

Ultimately, Reaching for Dawn hopes to become part of Liberia’s memory — a receptacle of its past and possible futures. Without truth or reconciliation, Verdier fears the dark possibility of history repeating itself: “Perpetrators still neighbour their victims and those in power don’t have a strong desire to face the issue. I fear where this will leave the nation.” 

© Elliott Verdier.

elliottverdier.com

Reaching for Dawn is published by Dunes Editions.

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.