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.
This time last year, we had already been in the Gambia since the beginning of January. We had traveled back down to the small West African country, to document the transition of a 22-year long dictatorship to a democracy. However, because the incumbent president, Yahya Jammeh, had rescinded his acceptance of the winning vote, in December 2016 – a week after Gambians had decided enough was enough and voted for Adama Barrow’s coalition government – he was refusing to step down.
Therefore, the last month of 2016 and into those first few weeks of 2017, Gambia was in a state of flux – the unpredictability of what Jammeh would do next was almost tangible.
“We are so stressed by his (Jammeh’s) refusal to step down,“
an old Gambian friend told us, “we are ready for change. He must go”, she went on. Even in the safety of our compound, she still spoke in hushed tones – the ingrained fear of 22-years of autocracy, that someone would over-hear and report her, was still very prevalent.
After much intervention from the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS), on January 21st, 2017, Jammeh eventually agreed to leave the country, exiled to Equatorial Guinea (a West African country which is not part of the International Criminal Court (ICC) – therefore, he could not be extradited).
Meeting people on the streets of Banjul, on the 22nd January 2017, couldn’t have been more different from the quietly uttered words, previously spoken by my friend -‘GAMBIA HAS DECIDED!‘, shouted, triumphantly, at us everywhere we went. And, #GambiaHasDecided t-shirt’s worn proudly and without fear – just one day before most people would not dare to wear them so openly. But, now Gambians knew for certain, the dictator had been flown out of the country.
The above group were on the streets of the capital, welcoming back and directing the thousands of Gambians to free transportation, back to their hometowns and villages – those who had fled the country, across the river into neighbouring Senegal and beyond in fear, when Jammeh had refused to step down and ECOWAS troops massed on the border, ready to intervene.
So much has happened in one short year, and so much more still to be done. Jason Florio and I will no doubt be back down there in the coming months, to carry on where we left off, documenting change in the Gambia. We’ll keep you posted!
Celebrating just a few of the incredibly inspiring women we have met, over the years, and photographed on our travels, and photography assignments.
January 2013: Kaur, The Gambia, West Africa. Members of the Santa Yalla kaffo (group) take a moment between harvesting rice from the fields, which are irrigated by the River Gambia. They are paid 30 Gambian Dalasis a day (80 US cents). River Gambia Expedition
And, not forgetting, all those young girls who keep me company, and make us smile and, very often, laugh out loud wherever we go in the world…we salute you, too.
Jason Florio,FRGS (Fellow of The Royal Geographical Society, London), is an award-winning photographer whose work has focused on under-reported stories on people living on the margins of society and in places of conflict. He photographs and writes for publications including: New York Times, Newsweek, Technology Review, The Independent on Sunday, Virginia Quarterly Review, Men’s Journal, Geographical, AFAR, and Outside Magazine. Florio’s photography has been solo exhibited globally and has won numerous international awards and his work has been acquired by a number of museums. His fine art photography prints can be purchased from the Helen Jones-Florio Online Gallery.
Helen Jones-Florio is an expedition and photography producer, writer and blogger. She has been traveling to West Africa for over 15 years and has produced photography assignments around Africa, USA, Mexico, and Europe. She is the co-founder of the ‘Photos Tell Stories’ photography workshops, and has created and produced extensive content for her expedition and photography workshop blogs. She is currently finishing a book about their 2009 expedition – based around her personal journal entries – and collaborating with Jason and on a book about their 2012-13 expedition.
Published work includes – writing and photography: Adventure Travel Magazine (UK), ‘Wings’ (Arik Airlines in-flight magazine), American Photography’s Pro Photo Daily, Africa Geographic/Safari Interactive Magazine, Travel Africa Magazine (UK), Resource Magazine (USA), Amazing Travel Stories (USA), B Spirit/B There (Brussels Airlines inflight magazine), Concern Universal, NGO, Gambia Experience Magazine (UK), Stellazine (USA), African World Heritage Annual Report.
The West Africa connection: Jason and Helen met in The Gambia, many years ago, whilst each was visiting mutual friends. Since 1997, Jason traveled yearly to The Gambia to work on a long-term project about the people who live and work around the sacred forest of ‘Makasutu’ – the resulting book of this work can be viewed here : Blurb Books.
Together, Jason and Helen have made two West Africa expeditions to produce extensive bodies of photographic, written and video material. In 2009 they made the first recorded circumnavigation of The Gambia by foot – ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush -a 930km African odyssey‘. In 2012/13 they made the first recorded expedition to document the communities along the 1130km course of River Gambia – ‘River Gambia Expedition – 1130km source-sea African odyssey‘. In 2014, sponsored by the US Embassy, Banjul they taught a series of ‘Photos Tell Stories‘ workshops to Gambian students – introducing photography as a way to document and share their lives as part of a cultural exchange.
Presently (as of May 2015) – Floro and Helen are basing out of the Mediterranean island of Malta, where Florio has been working with MOAS_EU, documenting the rescues of refugees and migrants off the coast of Libya. Currently (Dec 16th) he is on route to the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Greece, on a new mission. Helen is in the process of setting up a new stand-alone, on-line, boutique fine art photography prints gallery, featuring a select group of established international photographers.