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7 Questions for Tyler Stiem

PUBLISHED: February 10, 2010

Tyler Stiem’s essay “Goodbye, Babylon King,” featured in our Winter 2010 issue, traces the haunted memories of a war-ravaged Liberia in the days leading up to the 2005 watershed election of current Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Stiem’s first-person perspective, stunningly conveyed in both his writing and accompanying photographs, offers a fresh perspective on the emotionally exhaustive subjects of war and dictatorship. Here, he sheds insight on Liberia’s precarious past (specifically under Charles Taylor’s brutal regime) and forecasts developments in the country’s future.

1. In writing “Goodbye, Babylon King,” what was your creative process for articulating personal experience within the violent background of Liberian history?

The challenge of writing about Liberia and its history of extreme violence is that you can only dwell on the violence for so long before it threatens to overwhelm the narrative. I felt a moral obligation to tell the stories of the people I met—and the Liberians I met were extremely forthcoming; they wanted the world to know what had happened—but I also knew that I risked turning them into abstractions of suffering.

I wrestled with this as I wrote “Goodbye, Babylon King.” I felt the story had to be tempered with scenes of ordinary life, such as it was, during the conflict and on the eve of the election, because ultimately I think you can only begin to understand a catastrophe like the Liberian civil war when you have a handle on the mundane. The essay is pretty graphic in places, but I actually excluded some of the most horrific incidents people shared with me—the evisceration of pregnant women at roadblocks, for example. I must’ve heard a dozen first-hand accounts of this, but chose instead to depict a near-miss that my friend Segbe witnessed.

I must admit that I would’ve struggled to find any signs of hope if the Nyanfors hadn’t so generously welcomed me as a guest in their home. Their optimism and their humor helped me to see, and capture, the glimpses of ordinary happiness amid the ruin and abjection.

2. One of the people you write about, referring to a controversial act of Charles Taylor’s, wonders, “What did we make of that?” It seems beyond conventional ability to make sense of Taylor’s crimes against humanity. Did you experience any difficulties in writing about Taylor’s legacy in Liberia? Do you have any opinions about his ongoing trial for war crimes at the Hague?

As I said, one of the challenges of writing about Taylor’s legacy—and let’s be clear, Taylor was merely the most successful of the half-dozen brutal warlords who terrorized the country—was establishing the right tone. Another challenge, one I’m not sure I dealt with as well as I would’ve liked, was showing how Liberians coped with the trauma of the war.

Obviously there’s something very, very wrong when violence has become normalized and much of the population is dealing with some form of post-traumatic stress; in the essay I talk about how Taylor’s legacy eroded Liberians’ sense of collective self-worth. However, I also think the shared experience of trauma allowed for a sort of spontaneous, low-level group therapy. I was struck by how eager people were to talk about their experiences, make sense of them, commiserate. They made themselves available to each other. In the complete absence of any formal mental health care, it was the best you could hope for.

As for the trial, I have mixed feelings about it. I’m not sure how meaningful a trial conducted in distant courtrooms can be to Liberians. It has broken the cycle of symbolic bloodletting that began in the ’70s with the very public torture and execution of the Tolbert cabinet and continued into the ’90s with the videotaped torture and murder of President Doe. (You could still find his snuff film in the markets when I was there, fifteen years later.) This is a good thing.

Unfortunately, the price of peace has been an informal amnesty for many of the agents of the worst violence. They walk free, even serve in government, because there are just too many of them to prosecute and they are too well connected. The conventional wisdom at the time was that pursuing justice in any systemic way would create an environment of paranoia among the powerful and could only destabilize the country. And in the broader African context, the trial (which is actually run by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, not the ICC) can only make the continent’s other big men more determined to hold onto power. Look at how this has played out in Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe and his inner circle cling to office. The prospect of international prosecution can’t be far from their minds when they think about relinquishing their grip. It’s difficult to envisage a practical and satisfying alternative to the trial, however.

3. Can you describe your methodology as a photographer-writer? And how this dual role influenced the creation of “Goodbye, Babylon King”?

My approach is pretty haphazard. I work with a camera around my neck and a notebook in my hand. It can be exhausting, trying to do both. Normally I focus on the interviews first, then start to shoot as I get a handle on the situation and build a rapport with people. I think the photography nourishes the writing. The simple act of framing images in the viewfinder changes your habits of looking, which in turn affects the choices you make when you depict reality on the page. When I sit down to write I often take a few vivid images as my starting point, and this was certainly the case with “Goodbye, Babylon King.” A simple visual detail, easily overlooked—the pattern of moss on a mortared building, say—can become a jumping-off point in the story. I suppose the reverse is true, too, that approaching the material as a writer affects the decisions I make as a photographer. I certainly try to shoot with a narrative in mind, though sometimes it’s only afterwards, when I’m looking at the contact sheets in Photoshop, that the story reveals itself. I love that about photography.

4. What was the most memorable image you captured—in writing or photography or both—that came out of your experiences in Liberia?

After a few days in Liberia you either grew indifferent to the visual monotony of the destruction or you started to look for something in it. I spent a lot of time exploring Monrovia with Segbe and Tamba as my guides, and they helped me to see, really see, the city. Monrovia experienced the war as long stretches of relative calm punctuated by spasms of fighting. It’s a testament to the irrepressibility of the residents that whenever the fighting stopped, construction would resume. Some of the buildings would survive untouched, others would be destroyed or half-destroyed. Work would continue until there was more fighting.

When I visited in 2005, the buildings looked like they were growing out of the ruins of themselves: three floors would be pulverized and then there would be these pristine load-bearing pillars and walls emerging from them. Each building was a monument to thwarted hopes, to life as it went on throughout the war: a sort of forensic architecture. The other abiding image I have is of the way they were appropriated by squatters. Even the worst-hit buildings were in use, often ingeniously. People had figured out how to live ordinary lives in these extraordinary surroundings. The image of kids playing games and flying kites from the rooftops has stuck with me.

5. President Johnson-Sirleaf has announced that she isrunning for re-election in 2011 (although she campaigned on the premise that she would serve just one term). What do you see in Liberia’s future?

I’m not sure that President Johnson-Sirleaf’s decision to run for a second term heralds a return to politics-as-usual in Liberia—she’s not rewriting the constitution, after all—but I do think it speaks to the enormity of the task of rebuilding the country. She inherited a failed state; if rebuilding the ruined infrastructure wasn’t challenge enough, she has faced the obstacles of dismantling the country’s entrenched networks of privilege (which include former warlords and Taylor associates) and reforming the military. Until the military is professionalized and accountable to a civilian government in the absence of peacekeepers, the situation will remain fragile. Continuity at the top would be good for Liberia in the short-term, I think.

A major ongoing concern is the crisis of leadership in neighboring Guinea, where the ruling junta that took power after President Lansana Conte’s death last year is circling its ethnic wagons. The situation there is similar to Liberia’s in the early 1990s: extreme poverty, the collapse of a repressive ethnic regime (Conte’s) and subsequent power vacuum, an undisciplined and divided military, a surplus of natural resources (in this case, bauxite, gold, diamonds, iron ore), and rugged terrain that lends itself to balkanization. This is the classic equation for civil war in West Africa.

Already there are reports that the Guinean military is cleaving along ethnic lines and that mercenaries from Liberia and other West African countries have begun to show up in eastern Guinea, a densely forested area from which rebel incursions were staged during the Liberian civil war. It remains to be seen how far the situation in Guinea will be allowed to deteriorate. Another major conflict in this already-fragile region could be disastrous for Liberia and Sierra Leone. Liberia’s greatest asset is the will of ordinary people to move on and rebuild. This bodes well for the future, but maintaining this momentum in the face of these obstacles won’t be easy.

6. What projects are you currently working on or hoping to work on in the future?

Next month I’m headed to the Caucasus on a research trip for a project about breakaway states. I hope to return to West Africa later in the year.

7. Are there any books or articles that you’ve been reading recently?

At the moment I’m re-reading Terence O’Donnell’s excellent Garden of the Brave in War. It’s a series of sketches of life in pre-revolutionary Iran, where O’Donnell spent most of the ’60s and ’70s growing fruit and keeping bees. The book weds the pleasures of the novel—three-dimensional characters, vivid tableaux—with the subtlety and insight of good reportage. Everything you could want in a travel book, really. I’m also reading Pedro Paramo by Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo.


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