An aerial view of Tombohuaun, an isolated village surrounded by jungle, Kailahun District, Sierra Leone
Unity over adversity. It’s a running theme in the story of Tombohuaun, translation “Tombo’s Wound,” a remote village tucked into the jungle of Sierra Leone’s Eastern Province. The community’s founding legend states that a villager named Tombo cut his foot on a catfish in the river, and the then chief ordered the fish to be caught and killed. Back then, as now, the community came together to put things right: they caught the fish, ate it, and went on to name the town after this symbolic triumph.
This banding together of the community has come to embody its resourceful spirit, with Tombo’s wound the least of its ongoing struggles. In the last 15 years, in addition to enduring an Ebola outbreak, the village has been without clean water since the nation’s civil war, as it has not yet been able to reconstruct the enclosure that once protected its supply. The community of 400 also lacks decent toilets and safe hygiene practices, increasing residents’ susceptibility to water-borne illnesses.
Momoh Babaga, 22, climbs a tree to collect palm kernels which will be processed
Momoh Babaga, 22, holds the apparatus he uses to climb trees to collect palm kernels
But those dire circumstances were not the only focus of the photo series I was commissioned to make for WaterAid, the international NGO working to bring clean water to Sierra Leone. Rather than just creating images that underscored Tombohuaun’s plight, WaterAid and I envisioned a cultural study of the community that would highlight its resilience, its fraternity, its highly organized structure, and its work ethic. These are all the things that will enable the village to thrive and sustain its clean water resources and practices long after WaterAid has completed its work. These photographs became the visual backbone for WaterAid's Untapped campaign.
In light of those objectives, my photos were to spotlight two main themes—the unique characters within the community and the hard work they do to keep it flourishing.
Joe, 6, sitting on the lap of Mariatu, his mother, with the rest of the family posing for a group portrait
Fatmata, 20, holding her son Bockarie, 10 months old, on her back as she collects dirty water from the natural spring in Tombohuaun. Everyone in the village has experienced persistent problems with worms, diarrhoea and vomiting as a result of drinking this water
Ibrahim, 4, (Haja's son) carries a container of dirty water on his head on his way home from the source, a natural spring, ten minutes walk from the village of Tombohuaun
With some of the photographic work I’ve done in other parts of Africa, it’s been easy to lean on certain visual crutches—tribal face paint, ornate jewelry, striking clothing. But that’s only skimming the visual surface of the community and the people, and wasn’t in the spirit of this campaign. Digging deeper requires an extended stay, as well as collaborating with locals who have grown up in the area.
Long before we traveled to Tombohuaun, WaterAid had laid the groundwork for a positive, in-depth experience: Staff first surveyed the land to see if they could indeed build the well and bring sustainable clean water, and then Neil Wissink (who became a friend during the project) went into the community to get to the know the villagers, gain trust, create a timeline for the project, and gain permission for the visual component. By the time we arrived to make photographs, the villagers were well aware of our role and purpose, and welcomed our presence. In two weeks time, the standout characters were sure to reveal themselves, and they did: The town beauty queen who artfully styles the women’s hair. The blind man who prays outside his porch. The imam (religious leader) who acts as an elder in the community. The vivacious female leader who delivers the community’s babies.
Iye Conteh, 19, braids her sister’s hair on the porch in front of the family home. Iye left the village to seek opportunities in the city, but comes home regularly to see her family
Foudi, 3, left, and Lahai, 7, both children of Matta, play with a toy outside their home
Joe, age 6, nicknamed "Strong Joe" for his energy
Mahmoud Kamara, around 80, blind, sits on his porch to pray. Mahmoud is a former Imam with the Amakiya sect
Nancy, 6, holds the doll that her father Sellu made for her, in the village of Tombohuaun
Ibrahim Vandi, 65, who's an imam with the Amadiyya sect in the village of Tombohuaun. Ibrahim was born in the village and is highly respected
Nancy, 6, carrying a container called a 'gallon' of dirty water collected from a natural spring - the water source for the community of Tombohuaun. The gallon is put on her head by her mother Fatu, whom she goes with to collect water, as it's too heavy for Nancy to do herself. Though a year older than her cousin Lucy, Nancy is a head shorter. Her father says her stunted growth is due to the dirty water. Nancy also recently lost her five year old sister due to this water
Ibrahim Vandi praying at the local mosque
Ibrahim Vandi plays a board game with his neighbor on the front porch of his home
Matu, 40, the life and soul of the village of Tombohuaun. She is a traditional birth attendant and plays an important role within the women's society
Matu, 40, centre, dancing and singing with other women as the community of Tombohuaun welcome the arrival of the WaterAid team
As characters emerged, I photographed each of them in two ways: I made their portrait in an onsite “studio” built by the villagers; and I photographed them in action, highlighting their role or job in the community. WaterAid would then use these dual photos to paint a complete picture of each subject and their individual story.
For the portraits, instead of setting up a portable studio, we decided to enlist the community’s help to build an outdoor studio onsite in the jungle. This allowed them to brandish their resourcefulness and teamwork and me to have a portrait setting that would compliment the overall style of the series. The studio was set up on the side of a building, with banana and palm leaves laid out on the ground, and bed sheets hung from two poles to act as a giant diffuser.
The creation of the "studio"
To make the in-action shots of the villagers, we photographed them processing palm oil and fishing, two important industries for the community. We learned that work is shared equally among the men and women in the village, with each gender performing a select set of duties.
While many of the villagers own their own palm oil plantations, Tombohuaun also has one community plantation run by volunteer villagers, which is where we focused our photography. Profits from this plantation are funneled into a community piggy bank. If a resident has an emergency and needs a loan, they can take money out of this bank as long as they pay it back with interest.
Mayama Mustafa, 60, women's leader and village midwife, with the two children she looks after: Jeneba, left, and Nafisatu, her niece. She holds the savings bank that all women contribute to and share out
Tailu Yajah, brother of the village chief, with his tree climbing equipment and machete, which he uses to harvest palm kernels high up in the trees
Palm oil processing work is divided up like this: The men climb the trees, hack down the palm kernels with machetes, gather the kernels, and then move those to a giant pit where they’re mashed and fermented. The women then filter out the byproduct and melt it to make palm oil that’s sold at the market.
It wasn’t until we delved into the palm oil processing photography that we witnessed in amazement the men’s method for climbing the palm fern trees—using a sling-like apparatus into which they lean their body weight as they scaled the bark with their feet. After clumsily attempting it myself (with the villagers teasing me to come down before I broke my neck), I quietly joked that it might be nice to have a ladder so I could photograph their work from above. Much to my surprise, the next morning a handmade ladder tied together with twine was set out for my photography work. As the villagers held onto the bottom of it, I climbed the rickety (but structurally sound) rungs to the top.
Thanks to their generosity and ingenuity I was able to capture images of their work from a totally unique vantage point.
A behind the scenes shot of me photographing by Jesse Korman
Momoh Babaga, 22, climbs a tree to collect palm kernels which will be processed
Bare feet stabilize Momoh Babaga as he climbs
Men work at one of several palm plantations in the village of Tombohuaun, processing palm kernels to make palm oil. The income from this resulting palm oil sales go to a hardship fund, from which anyone in need in the village can draw from
Bare feet are used to mash palm kernels
Sallay Yajah, 30, sifts palm kernels at the community palm plantations, processing palm kernels to make palm oil. The income from the resulting palm oil sales go to a hardship fund, from which anyone in need in the village can draw from
Aruna Bockarie, 24, processing palm kernels into oil
We also photographed the villagers fishing for giant mud cat, which is done in the river using handmade nets. Making photographs of their work from the shore wasn’t an option: If you shoot it from the shore, it’ll look like it was shot from the shore. So I slipped out of my shoes (going barefoot helps me to keep my balance in moving water) and into river up to my chest with my medium format camera. Sure, it’s a risk to carry expensive equipment into the water, but to me, getting the better shot is always more important. And the best vantage point for river images is just above the surface of the water.
Matta Saffah, 27, holding home-made hooped nets used for fishing
Sellu Smart, holding home-made fishing nets
Matta Saffah, 27, fishing using home-made hooped nets in the River Male near the village of Tombohuaun. It takes two people to fish this way and usually a lot of patience
Sellu Smart, fishing in the River Male in the village of Tombohuaun. The community fish in the dry season like this, in the wet season the river is too dangrous to enter
Me and my camera carefully tiptoeing through the river. Photo by Jesse Korman
Massa Kennie, holding home-made hooped nets used for fishing
Massa Kennie, fishing using home-made hooped nets in the River Male near the village of Tombohuaun. It takes two people to fish this way and usually a lot of patience
Matu, 40, holds a catfish, caught from the River Male in the village of Tombohuaun
Ultimately the images went toward an uplifting and innovative fundraising campaign that breaks out each character in the community, tells their individual stories, and inspires admiration and hope rather than pity and sadness. It was a dream project for me, working with a well-respected water charity that does thorough, responsible work, and an overall lovely two weeks in the rainforest with the people of Tombohuaun.
Donations to WaterAid’s Untapped appeal will be doubled by the UK government until January 31st: www.wateraid.org
Neil, Jesse and I with the warm people of Tombohuaun
The portraits featured today in the Guardian.