I’ve known how to write my name since I was four years old, so as I watched Cedeh sit down with paper and a prized ink pen and slowly work through the letters of her name I had a sense of peering into someone’s shame. Then Cedeh looked up with a proud smile and I could see that she clearly had no time for self-consciousness; she was the mother of many children, leader of the village choir, and a survivor the Liberian Civil War. She had also just finished her first year of schooling, and could now meet the national goal of having all Liberian women be able to sign her name on the ballot for the upcoming Liberian Presidential Election. I was awed by her.
I was photographing in Liberia with Mercy Corps before the 2011 election, and learned that Cedeh’s story was common in this country emerging from 14 years of civil war. A whole generation of people — especially women — were born into such violence and chaos that the orderliness of school, quiet pupils in bright, tattered uniforms clutching the precious tools of pen and paper, just never happened. Cedeh’s goal was both achingly simple, yet profoundly complex. In fact, for the women of Liberia and the election of 2011 it proved impossible to achieve. However for Cedeh, she was already moving down a path of education and leadership, and not looking back.
As I look at images from this shoot I am reminded just how profound goal was, and that it said everything about broken lives and human resilience. In fact, in Liberia, with Mercy Corps, as a photographer, this goal became a door that allowed me to step through and peer into others’ lives, and for a moment I could pick up my camera and clearly focus on the capacity of these women who knew loss and pain in a way that both haunted and awed me. Because this door remained open I could clearly see both sides, and question the facile advantages of my Western life that left me holding the camera, and brought me here to both help and learn with Mercy Corps.
After that interview we moved on from Cedeh’s village and through other doors and into other stories. Mercy Corps’ involvement in development programs in Liberia continues today as a mirror of Cedeh’s personal goal — as simple as creating a job for one person, and as complex as igniting a fragile, emerging new economy. I see now that my personal goal was, and is, to look through my lens at people who draw me through the door into their picture, so I can clearly look back, and look into, my own life.
Mercy Corps continues to be involved in Liberia’s transition to peace through youth employment programming and economic development. To find out more visit www.mercycorps.org.