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Don’t Pepe Here, Monrovia, Liberia

One of Monrovia’s ubiquitious ‘Don’t Pepe’ signs, informing Liberian residents of the local neighbourhood’s desire that they refrain from urinating in this spot. Subtle variations include, “Only Goat Pepe Here’, a humourous stab at causing the potential micturater to question whether he/she wants to be considered a ruminant. This one was taken at the base of the ruin of the E.J. Roye Building, one of the capital’s most iconic war-damaged buildings.

Technique: B/W conversion, contrast work, selective blurring of image.

Street Scene, Downtown, Monrovia, Liberia

Yes, Liberia is a very religious country. But beyond that slightly trite observation, what I love about this image taken in downtown Monrovia, is that every single person in the image is in someway interacting with another person. I didn’t intend this, it was just a series of pictures taken downtown. In common with most African societies, Liberia is a highly socially interactive experience. Everywhere you go in the city people are talking, joking, arguing, trading – networks and connections are everything and it’s rare to see people foregoing some kind of human interaction in order to go about their business as quickly as possible. Westerners sometimes come across as rather gauche and joyless people because of our tendency to leap in immediately and directly with what we want from a given situation, without first taking the time to acknowledge the presence of another person as a human being, often achieved simply by circuiting around the stories of the day, news, family, business, etc.

Ruins of National Bank of Liberia & E.J.Roye Building, Monrovia, Liberia

The E.J. Roye Building (foreground) and National Bank (background), two of Monrovia’s most iconic wrecked building, visible from several kilometres away across the low-lying marshy lagoons that surround the city. Both buildings were burnt out during the time of civil conflict. The National Bank wasn’t even completed and in use by the time it was destroyed. The roofs of these empty structures are used to mount communication towers – as is the case in much of Africa, Liberian mobile telecommunications are probably the advanced and most reliable of all services.

Robot Man, Flag Day Parade, Monrovia, Liberia

Flag Day, a national holiday instituted in 1915 to celebrate the Liberian flag as “symbol of pride and, fidelity and dignity”, and now beloved of all Liberians. Outside City Hall (Pron: Setty-Haw’) a crowd had been gathering throughout the day to watch parades pass by on Tubman Boulevard. One of the most bizarre incarnations was a muscular Liberian man who had ‘whited up’ and walked up and down like an android all day. Everyone was fascinated with him. You’ll see that he is, in fact, a walking advert for a local bank.

Technique: Maintaining detail in extreme white whilst keeping detail in the deep shadows is hard to pull off at any time, especially in the middle of the day and this close to the equator. The compromise has been struck toward the highlights, leaving shadow detail to fill in and directing the eye to the centre of the image.

Monsoon Rain, Monrovia, Liberia

The intensity of tropical rain in Liberia is outstanding. Monrovia is one of the wettest cities on earth, seeing around 4500mm of rain annually, with rain typically falling on the city for 180+ days per year. Much of this rain falls during the long rainy season which typically runs from mid-May through to November.

Technique: This shot was taken at shutter speed of 1/250 of a second. However, to me it looks like it was taken at a much slower shutter speed, perhaps around 1/15 of second, which gives you an idea of the intensity of the rain that day. I was first attracted to the shot by the contrast between the rain itself, the dark background and green translucent roof. The contrast in the shot is there because of the bright sun, still high in the sky at 3pm (in equatorial regions of the world, it is common to experience very intense rain and bright sunshine simultaneously, often at around 2-3pm), illuminating the otherwise dark alley with a narrow slit of light, and picking out the sun-bleached green of the plastic roofing. You don’t need to spend much time on the coast of West Africa to appreciate that both sun and rain are powerful weathering agents, slowly breaking down everything.

Atlantic Ocean, Robertsport, Liberia

The Liberian coast doesn’t see many tourists as neighbouring Sierra Leone, but Robertsport, a relatively small town, is probably the country’s best ‘beach resort’. The Atlantic Ocean is startlingly warm here, 28 or 29 degrees throughout much of the year, about as warm as the ocean gets anywhere in the world. Dusk is one of the best times to bathe in West Africa, the punishing sun is no more, the very powerful waves have often lost much of their force, and the scary undertow is diminished.

Technique: Manipulating white balance was the key to making this shot work. It was taken 14 minutes after sunset, when the quality of the dusk light was very beautiful and also changing very rapidly (very close to the equator it can go from daylight to complete darkness in around 30 minutes). I saw the shot, ran down to beach as fast as possible and fired off a series of about 15-20 pictures. Later, when I processed the shots I was at first disappointed with the results, the composition felt right, but the colours and the light seemed all wrong, oranges and yellow prevailed, and the image seemed pale and washed out, not at all how I remembered the scene. I felt like the camera’s automatic white balance (WB) had got this seriously wrong and it was only when I started making big manual adjustments to the WB did I get the image as I visualised it that day, dominated by pink, purples and blues. The ability to adjustment WB, is one of the most important of several reasons why many professional photographers choose to shoot in the digital negative (RAW or DNG) format. If I had shot this image straight into the camera’s default compressed format (JPG) I would have very limited scope to adjust the WB in post-production and get the final shot as I felt it should be. If your camera has the capability to shoot in RAW, try it out, you will need image processing software such as Apple’s Aperture (available to download for about US$80). Don’t be discouraged by the initial ‘flat’ and ‘soft’ feel of the first look at the digital negative image, think of it as an uncut diamond and the image processing software as the diamond cutter. That said, digital image processing is a complex area, and you will need to invest a fair amount of time in understanding the essential concepts to squeeze the very best out of every image.

Cook Shop, St Paul Community, Monrovia, Liberia

Cook Shops are a Liberian institution, a fine place to get a cheap and tasty meal. I love the rich green colour and wall painting of this one in Monrovia’s St Paul Community, a place I often used to pass on the way to nearby Marlin Corner.

Inside the building you would probably be served something like Potato Greens, Goat Stew, or Jollof Rice. The photographer finds the former dish incredibly calorific, and once didn’t need to eat again for another 36 hours. Rice is the staple of choice for most Liberians, people will tell you “if you haven’t eaten rice, you’ve not eaten”. Fufu, is a common alternative, a starchy paste made from root vegetables (such as cassava) and processed in several different ways to produce different consistencies. The ubiquitous accompaniment to any of the above is ‘Pepper Sauce’, impress your Liberian friends with your ability to tolerate this ludicrously hot dish, prepared from unseeded ‘Scotch Bonnet’ chillies – be careful, that’s 200,000-300,000 Scoville Units!