Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Madam President

Three days ago (7th October) it was announced that this year's Nobel Peace prize was to be shared by three remarkable women , Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkul Karman and Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Back in February 2006, I had the priveledge of meeting and photographing President Sirleaf while I was in Monrovia, covering the rehabilitation of child soldiers in Liberia for the Sunday Times (London).

As part of our UN organised visit we had been invited to a attend a presidential ceremony where new dignitaries would be sworn-in. It was still only a month or so after her inauguration and there was a curious atmosphere. A mix of perhaps understandable tension over her security, and elation in the crowd who clearly sensed this historical opportunity to break the cycle of violence that had gripped Liberia so often in their recent past. 

When proceedings were ready to begin, a hush descended over the assembly and the president herself entered the room, flanked by security at a respectful distance and followed by a throng of local photographers who mobbed her, shutters chattering as she walked the length of the smiling room.

Seated on a sofa embroidered with the national emblem and with an imposing and vigilant bodyguard stood immediately behind her, she cut a calm but formidable figure.

One of the most beguiling aspects of being a photographer is the opportunity to see behind the scenes of so many people's lives. Legendary female journalist and longtime comrade in arms 'Charlie Alpha' had managed to arrange an interview with the new President as part of our piece.

And so it was, that after the main ceremonies, we were led up to the presidential offices and awaited our scheduled interview. Our tour-guide showed us round the Presidential offices. They were what estate agents would undoubtedly describe as "lavishly appointed" rooms which had only recently belonged to the deposed warlord Charles Taylor.

Amongst the endless gold-leaf, discarded chandeliers and carpets so deep you needed a machete to cross the room, there was a rather peculiar treasure. Charles Talyor had a purpose-built personal barber shop. Mirrored on every side (allegedly to prevent anyone creeping up on him while he was being shaved) and complete with Liberian flags and yet more chandeliers.

It was not a huge room and photographing it without getting myself in the picture took a bit of careful composition and acrobatics on my part. Charlie Alpha was not so restrained, and instantly wanted a picture of herself in the chair. Naturally I obliged, knowing full-well that it would join the litany of our travel pictures that might eventually appear in one of her books.

When President Sirleaf appeared she was softly authoritative, friendly and very patient considering her pressing schedule. 

"Can you believe all this?" she said, Jesturing around the room to the luxurious carpet with the national emblem and the then upwards to the ceiling on which was painted the most amazing scene of Charles Taylor, wrapped in the national flag (which stretched the length of the room) attended by seraphin and cheurbim.

"I would have preferred it painted over, but it is not really a priority at this moment." she added, nicely understating the challenges that were facing her country and her administration.

Nevertheless, when it came to take her portrait I couldn't resist framing her in this environment. The new face of Liberia against the trappings of the old regime.

The hope for a new start, surrounded by the reminders of why Liberia so desperately needed that renewal.

More than five years later, her Presidency has prevailed and brought stability and peace to the country. I think it's fantastic news that she and her fellow compatriot, the peace activist Leymah Gbowee have been honored alongside Yemen's Tawakkul Karman who is engaged with the beginning of a similar struggle to achieve peace and justice in her own country.

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