Thursday, May 31, 2012

Remembering To Move Forward

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words.  But the words that pictures can speak are not just content, they are often heart, soul, connection and deep memories that have perhaps been filed away and forgotten.  Some things within us are just waiting to be re-awakened by an old picture.  I don't know how many times I've looked at an old photo and thought, "Wow!  I totally forgot about that!  What a great memory!"  This isn't a luxury available to most Liberians.

Those of you who have lost pictures in a fire or flood or some other disaster can relate to the pain of not having your wedding photos or high school yearbooks available anymore.  I've been told it feels like you've lost a connection with some part of yourself that can no longer be accessed without those visual aides.  You can probably relate to this aspect of Liberian suffering.  Liberians have lost most of their photographic record.

Not only did Liberians have their pictures destroyed in the war by having to flee and leave them exposed to bombings, fire, rain, and other forms of mayhem; some Liberians actually had to go through the painful process of destroying these memories with their own hands!  You see, to be identified with a certain tribe, organization, education level, etc. could mean that you would be put to death.  One friend of ours was killed after rebels stopped him and asked him to write his name on a wall.  When he demonstrated this ability they shot him.  It was better to destroy all evidence of affluence, connection and education than to make yourself a target.  Therefore, people burned these memories and with them part of Liberia's history was lost forever.

Several years ago I was contacted by a Liberian friend that I have known for over 35 years.  His name is Floyd Morgan.  As a child I used to play everyday with Floyd and his brothers Melvin and Garmondeh.  He is among the majority of Liberians that no longer have pictures of their past.  He had no clear recollection of what he and his brothers looked like as children.  That was about to change...

It was while going through an old shoebox of photos from Liberia I came across a picture that caused me to jump for joy.  It was a pic of the Morgan boys as small children.  I couldn't wait to email this to Floyd.  I did.  The picture caused quite a stir among their family!  They were overjoyed to have this piece of their family history restored.  They printed off the picture and made copies and showed it to relatives.  They were amazed at how they looked at that age.  They had all the same sort of experiences we have when we see an old pic of ourselves, except it was magnified many times over due to the tragic circumstances they've suffered since the picture was taken.

"Childhood Friends" L to R:  Melvin, Floyd, me, Garmondeh

I am happy to report the small miracle that all of the Morgan boys lived through the brutal Civil Wars in Liberia.  Their stories are heart wrenching and difficult to process.  The lingering trauma has to be heavy for them to carry.  This pic provided a small relief and caused them to remember that there was a time when things were better, or at least seemed to be better. They had access to those allusive "good old days".  

This picture brought some healing with it.  Perhaps this seems trivial to those of us who are inundated with image overload on a daily basis, but the power of these historical records is immeasurable and life changing. As Sando Moore, a Liberian photojournalist who lost all of his photo archives in the wars, said, "If you don't know where you come from.  How can you know where you are going?"  Indeed.  

This is why I was excited to come across Liberia77 while researching Liberia online.  This organization was founded by two Canadian boys that grew up in Liberia in the 70's (much like my brother and I had).  They also had a treasure trove of Liberian photos and when they showed President Sirleaf their favorite pic of Liberia she urged them to put out the call for more.  The president understood the significance of showing Liberia what Liberia once looked like before she was ravaged by war.  I sent their organisation some of our pictures.  One was even selected as an editor's pick!  It is a cause worth checking out and a site worth exploring.

Back to the Morgan boys.... Some 35 years after that first picture was taken I was back in Liberia and in contact with Floyd.  It was surreal to see him again and he promised to contact his brothers who were also living in Monrovia.  It was like stepping back into childhood when all three of the Morgan boys pulled up at the Paynesville home where we were staying.  They carried a printed version of our childhood pic in their hand.  I presented them with framed and blown up copies I had made at Kinko's before coming over.  One for each of them and one for their mother to remember how her children once looked.  We laughed and hugged and caught up a bit.  We also reenacted our poses from 35 years earlier.  What an amazing memory!  The power of that picture was working on us, empowering us, re-connecting us and perhaps even reaching out and speaking to you as well.

"35 Years Later" L to R:  Melvin, Floyd, me and Garmondeh (I had trouble getting into the same pose -- knees and hips aren't what they used to be!)


  1. thats really amazing.

  2. What a wonderful and heart-wrenching story Heath. Welling up here just reading it. Well done to you and the Morgan boys! Gary.