“They were beating me while I could hear the election results being announced on a television,” said Saine. “When Jammeh was ahead in the polls, the meanest one kicked me and said ‘Tomorrow, your head will be on a plate’. I was really scared.” read more IRIN News
At the end of last year, we were commissioned by Amnesty International, West Africa, to make a documentary about the human rights defenders, and activists, who worked tirelessly, and often at their own risk, to stand up for those who had been abused and tortured – including working for the families of those who had ‘disappeared‘ – under the 22-year dictatorship of President Yahya Jammeh.
Having traveled, lived, and worked, over the last 20 years, on various assignments and personal projects, in the Gambia,Florio and I were always aware of its dark underbelly. We heard ‘the stories‘ of abuse, torture, disappearances, murder even. And, in a country which depends largely on tourism – the pull of beautiful sandy beaches, year-long sunshine, languorous boat trips on the River Gambia, technicolored sunsets – you’d be extremely hard pushed, if you only visited for a holiday, to have any notion at all of the graveness of what was going on, in the small West Africa country.
“For 22 years, we documented Gambians living in a climate of fear. Their rights were denied and many were subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, and widespread surveillance. But even in those dark days, there were people brave enough to stand up and challenge the abuse of power.”
To have all those stories, Jammeh’s reign of fear and terror, Florio and I had only heard whispers about over the years (until April 2016, when Gambians came to the streets to protest after the death in custody of activist Solo Sandeng), our Gambian friends only ever spoke sotto voce about what was going on, confirmed by those who had actually lived them was both incredibly disturbing and humbling. Now, with a new president, they have the freedom to speak out, have their voices heard.
We are truly thankful to every single person who shared their experiences, those who worked with us on the documentary, and Amnesty International for inviting us to make the documentary, in a place that we feel is a second home.
In 2014, Jason Florio and I were living in the small West African country of The Gambia, when we were woken by an early morning phone call, on 30th December, from a Gambian friend who advised us to ‘stay off the streets’ as the sound of gunfire had been reported, coming from the vicinity of the State House, in Banjul – the then President Yahya Jammeh’s seat of autocratic power – and talk of an attempted coup.
Not ones to miss out on the action, we got into our truck, cameras in hand, and drove around the unusually deserted streets. It was unnerving, to say the least, to see one of the main streets, Kairaba ‘Pipeline‘ Avenue – which is always teeming with people, traffic-laden, and noisy – virtually empty.
We are delighted to announce that we have been asked to extend the original closing date, 30th April, 2015, of the ‘Silafando’ exhibition, at Gaya Art Café, here in The Gambia, until the middle of May. So, for those of you who missed it, then the exhibition is open for public viewing – with the portraits, inside and outside the venue – Monday-Saturday, 12 noon-late.
The Alkalos – Gambian village chiefs – have been around the world and now they are back where they belong, on exhibit in The Gambia, West Africa. And, it’s with huge thanks to the curators at Athens Photo Festival (APhF:15), in Greece, where they were last exhibited – the ‘Silafando’ body of work, in 2013 – and where Florio was invited to present his work, from the last fifteen years, as a photojournalist.
We hope you can make it down to Gaya’s (Bertil Harding Highway, next to Senegambia craft market). If not, then you can view Jason Florio’s ‘Silafando’ series on his website.
In 2009 we turned left at the gate, from Makasutu Culture Forest, to embark on the first ever circumnavigation of The Republic of The Gambia, West Africa, completely by foot, with two donkeys – Neil & Paddy – (courtesy of The Gambia Horse & Donkey Trust) and a cart, to carry our camping and camera equipment.
At the end of each day, we presented ‘silafando’ (the traditional gift giving of kola nuts) to the village chief – the alkalo – and asked permission to pitch our campsite for the night, along with a request to take a formal portrait of the chief and, at times, the village elders.
‘A New York dinner party isn’t the place to open your mouth and not follow through – no matter how much Brooklyn Lager you’ve drunk. Yet, after a fellow guest told my partner, Helen, and I how he had walked 500 miles across Europe on the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, we declared that we’d been contemplating a journey for some time and a long walk sounded like just the thing… ‘ read the full story here: You People Cannot Walk, You Only Move in Cars‘ – The Independent .
‘Silafando’ is an award-winning body of work, which has been published and exhibited around the world and now, for the first time, we have been given the opportunity to do something we have dreamed of doing, since we finished the walk, and that is to exhibit them here in The Gambia (we are indebted to Athens Photo Festival,APhF:15, for shipping the prints to West Africa).
At last, the chiefs are coming home – thanks to Gaya Art Café and Gregor Gorman.
Thankfully, all is now quiet on the ‘Smiling Coast‘ of The Gambia, after yesterdays ‘attempted coup’.
It’s now been a little over a year since we packed our bags and left behind our much loved apartment, in Greenwich Village, to temporarily decamp the all too comfortable familiarities of our cosmopolitan New York City life, to the tiny Republic of The Gambia, West Africa – a country that both of us are equally familiar with, having spent over 17 years coming backwards and forwards, (‘ikatah, ikanah’), individually and, during the last five years, as a couple.
At times, the transition has been a stretch, having left behind all that NYC has to offer, the things we coolly took for granted – museums, photography galleries, spectacular architecture, cultural diversity…the constant sensory overload.
However (despite the Ebola epidemic – which has tragically effected so many in three other West African countries and , although not one single case has been reported here, Gambia has been marred by the outbreaks…the results of which have yet to fully emerge), we’ve found that this narrow slither of land has all of the above mentioned to offer too, as we’ve enjoyed a hectic year of working with, amongst others, the National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC – producing portraits of the traditional masquerades); we’ve exhibited our ‘Photos Tell Stories Photography Workshops’ students work at Alliance Française (and we’re planning to exhibit Jason’s ‘Silafando’ portraits, from our 2009 ‘A Short Walk in The Gambian Bush’ expedition, with NCAC, early next year); we’ve taken a stroll along the entire coastline of the country, staying in some of the most architecturally inspiring lodges in The Gambia (story to be published shortly). It’s all here… we just need all our friends from NYC to decamp and life will be complete! However, even that balances itself out here, as old friendships continue to grow, our circle of new friends expands, and we constantly meet inspiring folk who pop into the country from all over Africa and the rest of the world.
Aside from the work we’ve been doing in The Gambia, this past year, Jason has been off on his travels, on assignment for various clients – including the New York Times, Oprah Magazine, and Men’s Journal, which has taken him to other parts of West and East Africa. He’s also traveled up to Spain and Turkey (PepsiCo), back to NYC (Tablet Magazine), and, we’ve just returned from assignment in Ghana for Concern Universal, who we work regularly with.
Judging by this past year, and very recent events here in The Gambia, I’ll wager that there is plenty to keep us busy – and entertained – for quite some time, here in West Africa and further afield.
Wishing you all a very happy and peaceful New Year
A selection of images of the ‘Photos Tell Stories‘ school students, from various towns and villages around The Gambia, West Africa, showing off their Certificates of Attendance – which each student received after completion of their photography workshop with photographer and tutor, Jason Florio, and producer, Helen Jones-Florio.
We are now working on an exhibition, to be held in The Gambia, of the students work…news on this coming soon.
We have so much more to share with you. So, please check in again to see more of the students work. In the meantime, if you would like to check out the students work we have uploaded so far, please click on ‘Students Work‘ and ‘Teaching the Art of Portrait Photography‘