Glenna Gordon is a documentary photographer that has been blogging and shooting in West Africa for a number of years. Gordon also trains photojournalists in Africa and we have been great fans of her work since we begun African Digital Art. Gordon shares some of her insight and experience shooting in West Africa.
Liberia is the place where I became a photographer. I dabbled in Uganda, but I didn’t really learn how to be a photographer until I was in Liberia.
We have been following you for a while. How long have you photographed in Africa? Is it different than taking photos in other areas in the world?
I first visited Africa in the summer of 2006. I’d just finished journalism school and I didn’t really know what was next, but my brother was working in Rwanda so I went to visit him. While he was busy during the day, I thought I’d try and do some journalism. I loved it completely and immediately and decided I would move to Uganda for six months. One thing led to another, and here I am today… But, I actually started as a writer and not as a photographer. I was always a person who took pictures, but I thought of myself as a writer and I focused on writing. As I was working in Uganda, I was more and more drawn to photography. When I moved to Liberia in 2009, I wanted to be more focused. There are only so many hours in a day, and I wanted to spend all of them on one thing well. By 2010, I was working as a photographer full time.
I’ve actually never worked as a photographer anywhere except for Africa. I recently went on vacation in Mexico and I was struck by all that were different in a way that I haven’t been struck in a long time. I’d like to start working in other regions soon, but I don’t think I’ll stop working in Africa either.
You were based in Liberia for several years. How did living in Liberia transform your career as a photographer?
Liberia is the place where I became a photographer. I dabbled in Uganda, but I didn’t really learn how to be a photographer until I was in Liberia. When I first lived there, it was great because I had a lot of opportunities for assignments with relatively little experience. And as I continued to live there, and I spent more time thinking about the kind of photographer I wanted to be and the things I wanted to say, I was able to explore slowly and haphazardly. Many of my favorite pictures from Liberia happened completely by chance and only because I was living there: I just happened to be out one night at a bar where a white woman was carrying a monkey, or I was in the Capital Building to teach a photography workshop and I happened upon a row of brand new office chairs in front of a wood carving, or visiting the Ducor Hotel for the umpteenth time when a storm was brewing.
What are the major challenges of being a freelance photographer and photojournalist?
The biggest challenge is figuring out what’s next – how to do better work today than I did yesterday, and better work tomorrow than I did today. Recently, I showed some new work to a photographer friend in New York whose opinion I really respect and whose work I deeply admire, and who has given me incredibly important feedback in the past. I was looking for some kind of answer, some kind of guidance. He asked me some great questions and helped me think about things in a different way, but he didn’t have answers for me. No one does. It’s fumbling in the dark. I want to take a different kind of picture now, but I don’t know what it looks like, and I don’t know how to find it. If I just want do a portrait or a straight reportage project, sure, that’s easy – I just go and do it. But, now I want to do something more. I have to accept the discomfort of not knowing how to do it or how to get there, and trust the process. I’m better at doing that some day than others. I have to let go of all my Type-A habits and preconceptions of what my life should be and how I shold get where I’m going. I’m better at that some days than others too!
The biggest challenge is figuring out what’s next – how to do better work today than I did yesterday, and better work tomorrow than I did today.
What would you say are the biggest differences between amateur photography and photojournalism? What sort of advice would you give to those who would be interested in this field?
I don’t have another job that I do during the day and then I take pictures on the weekends. This is the only thing I do all day, every day. It’s all consuming – I think about pictures all the time, look at pictures all the time, take pictures all the time. And that’s the difference – that level of involvement and that accumulation of a number of hours every day. The best advice I have to anyone who wants to be a photographer would be to cultivate that level of commitment, even obsession. Move somewhere cheap – or live cheap – and focus on nothing else. Or, don’t! Just be a person who loves pictures and makes and appreciates pictures.
I see that you are on instagram, you are also part of a instagram group called Everyday Africa? There are now more people in Africa joining instagram more than 60 photos a minute are being uploaded, how do you think this trend will inform African photography? How is changing your process and experience as a photographer?
On April 22, 1980, thirteen ministers and government officials were publicly executed on the beach in Monrovia, Liberia, just in front of the army barracks where today the forces will launch as an independent army after more than $300 million has been spent by the American government alone training the 2000 troops. Some think the army is an expensive joke, and others hope it can lead in regional security as America hopes to have fewer boots on the ground in Africa. #liberia #monrovia #historyrepeats #army #military #onassignment
I think it’s great! Photography has never been a zero sum game, and that’s especially true in the digital era. The more people take pictures, the more people think about pictures, and the more people look at pictures. And the more people that do this in Africa, the more we will all know about Africa and be able to see places and people’s lives in Africa. I love the informality of it – I love being able to see what someone had for breakfast in Bamako and some kids playing in Joburg and someone farming in Tanzania. I think there’s an accumulation of images and a critical mass that will fundamentally inform our ideas about this wonderful world we live in.
For me as a photographer, there’s a direct and immediate impact: I posted a photo from my balcony in Monrovia the other morning, and someone commented, “Wow, not the most obvious place to be.” And for me, there’s no where I’d rather be! And for the commentor, I hope the next time he sees a picture of Monrovia it will be a little bit less strange.
Morning on my balcony in Monrovia, Liberia. Reading and looking through Tim Hetherington's "Long Story Bit by Bit." Such deep and important work that I am happy to be learning from yet again. Last week, I meet a former female combatant who remembered Tim and spoke of him with kindness and respect. I wonder what he'd think of Liberia today. As I look through his book, I'm reminded of all the things that development dollars and half-hearted reconciliation attempts haven't managed to change.
I do worry that I can get a little too preoccupied with how many people “like” my pictures. Of course when I post pictures of beaches and children and butterflies, people will like them. But it can be hard to remember that the subtler pictures have a place on instagram too, even if not as many people like them.
What would be your dream project in Africa if you had an unlimited budget and time? Where would it be?
I’d love to expand Nigeria Ever After into a book. I hope that will happen in the next couple of years, but it would be great if some time and budget just materialized now!! I’ve worked on it quite a bit in Lagos and in northern and central Nigeria, but I haven’t traveled to the Delta or south at all. I’d love to go there, and do more on it in Lagos, and then have the time and mental space to sit down with a great editor and designer and put it all together without being on an assignment treadmill.
The best advice I have to anyone who wants to be a photographer would be to cultivate that level of commitment, even obsession. Move somewhere cheap – or live cheap – and focus on nothing else. Or, don’t!
What are you currently working on? Any plans for travel within Africa? How do we keep track of you and your work?
My newest project is “Sin is a Puppy” about women in Northern Nigeria. I’m still working on Nigeria Ever After and I’ll continue to document Liberia’s fits and starts towards peace and development. I update Instragram quite often and then I post new work on the News section of my website too .