An Archive of Press Photography on Liberia. A Conversation on Compulsive Archiving
Eva Bentcheva: Ute, you have been collecting documentation related to Liberia for quite some time. If I was to come and see your archive in Berlin, what kind of materials would I find there?
Ute Klissenbauer: Indeed, I have gathered all that I could over the past four decades, both from and about Liberia, paying particular attention to German and international press photography embedded in the news coverage of mostly print newspapers, magazines, and books. The collection currently holds about 300 black and white photos (15 x 20 cm), photos of photos, which I excerpted from their sources and listed in a chronological index with references. Some of the original sources are also part of my own rather loose collection. Some sources could only be borrowed and others have been lost.You would also find folders and files with collected articles and embedded photos that I have not yet included in my archive system of photo excerpts and indexed lists.
I am interested in learning about Liberia’s history and development and thereby questioning if—and how—press photography or photojournalism can, by itself, serve to inform in a complex way. I am constantly searching for sources of information about the political and cultural history of Liberia, both in its African context and in its global significance. That being said, mine is a collection with a spatiotemporal distance to its subject: it is mostly the product of what is variously circulated about Liberia here in Germany and by the international and transnational media.
EB: And yet, yours is not just a material archive. Over this past year, you have experienced a certain reanimation of the materials.
UK: Indeed, March 11, 2022, brought about a change regarding my sense of “distance” from my subject. It was then that “AT,” a young Liberian medical student fleeing Ukraine, came to stay at my home in Berlin. He is the son of a friend of mine from back in the days when I lived in Liberia in the 1970s. Because I knew he was studying in Odessa, I contacted him and invited him to come and stay here when Russia attacked Ukraine in late February. In the meantime AT moved to Bavaria to study health informatics, but my place may remain his base in Berlin.
Back in March, AT arrived at my place to find press photographs about Liberia on the wall of my studio, bookshelves full of books from and about Liberia, a map of Liberia on my kitchen wall, curtains made of cloth from rural Liberia, artistically carved wooden objects on display, lots of personal photos from back then in a drawer—some of these even being family pictures for AT. This must have been very surprising and maybe also a bit strange for him. But for me, I felt so grateful to hear his perspective and to listen to the experiences of a younger Liberian for an extended period. Over the next few months, all these objects became beautifully, casually reanimated by AT’s presence, causing a cesura in my work with the archive. By the way, this crucial change in my living circumstances and its effect on my relationship to the archive happened shortly after we had begun our correspondence!
EB: I would like to go back to the earlier roots of your collecting process. Why such a strong interest in archiving?
UK: I believe that archives can be created to communicate and share information, to produce knowledge, as well as, occasionally, to help overcome and transcend the traumatic impetus of the original urge to collect. Facing loss, arbitrariness, and inconsistent reasoning, my personal process of archiving began as an attempt to make sense of a specific situation—a fascinating and long history, the extremely cruel civil war, and the troubled recent existence of Liberia. To this day, my archive is still very much about learning and making sense of a very complex social and political situation.
For me, the present can only be understood—and future perspectives can only be created—by considering the past. Archives have the potential not only to organize, but also to institutionalize materials that, in my case, have been compulsively collected over time. In a different but fascinating way, the archive can also retain a form in which it is halfway between a systematic collection and a seemingly chaotic array of hoarded materials. In either form, the archive can become an object and a source or critical reflection in itself.
EB: Whilst your archive documents the ways in which Liberia has been presented in the media and documented by others, you yourself actually have a close personal history with the country.
UK: Yes, I do indeed. My father and mother had independently from each other left to work in South America in the early 1960s. That’s where they started our family and where we children had our early education. My parents had lived most of their adult lives in Latin America, but after a failed attempt to settle in Ecuador in the 1970s, my father jumped onto the next two-year employment contract offered to him by the national German development agency GTZ (today GIZ). This happened to bring us to Liberia.
Then, after a violent military coup at the end of 1980, my mother, my siblings, and I were ordered to leave Liberia. After five years of living in Monrovia, where we had expected to remain for several more years, we were suddenly forced to leave with little time to say a proper goodbye. My father remained in Liberia a few years longer, first continuing his work with the GTZ, then with the Consulting Group for International Cooperation and Global Development (GOPA). The family only visited him once in 1983. My parents had strongly engaged with the country and Liberian people, but it was during the time there that their own personal relationship gradually fell apart, and they separated.
EB: Would you say you have a strong sense of identification with Liberia?
UK: I was a nine-year-old child when we came to Liberia; hence, I was highly open, impressionable, and passionate. “Liberia” is part of my childhood and youth, but I am not a Liberian. I was an expatriate in Liberia, just as before in Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador. Even though very young then, I had strongly felt that sense of not entirely belonging. There had been the necessity of an extra effort to understand, come to terms with, and feel at ease. I was extremely shy then and not as quick in switching from German and Spanish to English and Koloqua—Liberian English—as my younger sister. I felt hesitant, even reluctant to spontaneously appropriate cultures. Still today, I have difficulty understanding the fast-paced and functional world of “development aid workers,” diplomats, art jet-setters, and other occupations typical of expats. What is the knowledge base with which they enter a country? Whom does the extracted knowledge come to serve and benefit? I find it easier to understand another context by getting lost in translation or surrendering to the unknown.
EB: I find this idea, that an archive can grow out of a lack of a “proper goodbye” or a desire to be “lost in translation,” fascinating. Could one call your archive an “expatriate archive”?
UK: Frustration and alienation are part of my collecting process. There are times when isolation, idiosyncrasy, and doubt prevail. Rather than “expatriate,” maybe “ex-post” is a more fitting description of my private archive. The object of fascination is far away and a long time ago. Yet, it haunts the present.A lot lingers in the shadow. Revisiting, taking stock, presenting, and discussing the collection and archiving work could break the silence of the ex-post and activate new queries and research. The unexpected visitation of AT, and sharing our lives for almost half a year amidst the archive in my home, has stirred up new emotions and thoughts. It has evoked several ideas about how to push on with the archival work.
EB: So, in a sense, your archive is not only born out of nostalgia: it is also a political search for information and exposure. How did the collection get started?
UK: I returned to Germany in the end of 1980. At first, it seemed a strange and hard place to rebuild a life from close to scratch. My newest (and seventh in all) school was in the historic center of Düsseldorf, not far from the main station. Inside this was a magazine store selling West Africa, New African, African Business, BBC Focus on Africa, and many other magazines and journals concerned with the continent of Africa. I soon began to regularly comb through them, purchasing any with news from war-torn Liberia. At the time, the news about Liberia was getting constantly more horrific, depicting a progressing national deterioration that led to a civil war of fourteen years. As the news got worse, I compulsively collected every scrap, every article and image I could find about Liberia in German and international newspapers and magazines. My initial casual collection thus became a conscious hunt for information.
EB: Yet this was not only an objective search for materials, right?
UK: Certainly not. It felt like an amputation when my dossier, comprising the earliest German articles I collected about Liberia, was lost by a Liberian-German friend to whom I had lent it. But the friendship of course far outweighed the loss of the papers: the most important thing about collecting was and continues to be maintaining a living connection with the past and with individual people. Some of the most exciting, bewildering, desperate, and momentous incidents in my life have been linked to my stubbornness in holding on to “Liberia” by collecting and attempting to archive.
EB: How did your collecting process evolve over time? And how have you sought to “activate” or present your archive?
UK: I can discern several phases in my collecting activity as it gradually evolved along with my education, but it also included long periods without any precise and purposeful collecting. Having left Liberia in 1980 at the age of fourteen, my initial archiving came about under the spell of my memories, as a white European expat youth who experienced the disruption of suddenly being compelled to leave a place I considered home. As I said, it was initially all about getting news and facts about the situation in Liberia and the great desire to understand why a terrible and long war could take hold of the country. I was interested in what the root causes of the immense brutality of the warring factions and individuals could have been.
Then, while studying philosophy and political science in Frankfurt am Main, I became especially interested in the question of communication and the possibility of reason, justice, and peace in situations of incommensurability, particularly in contexts of bias like those brought about by colonialism. I became interested in international political science, global representation, and in the historical and current institution of the United Nations. But it was not until I also began to study art at the Städelschule in Frankfurt that I started to deal with the representation of press photography and the possibility of presenting the archive.
When the then largest ever UN peacekeeping mission—the United Nations Mission in Liberia UNMIL—was deployed in the era of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in June 2003, I decided that the archive should focus on German press photography and cover the whole space of time of that mission. I exhibited the resultant photo series as work in progress along with other artists’ projects in the conference event “UFO UNO – Vereinte Nationen, Öffentlichkeit und Kunst” [UFO UNO – United Nations, Public and Art], which I conceptualized and organized in 2006 at the Frankfurter Kunstverein.
In March 2007, I had the opportunity to participate in a study trip to UNMIL’s Liberian operations organized by the German Association of the United Nations. The experience of visiting the war-torn country after more than twenty years was overwhelming. In the first few days in Monrovia, I managed to find AS, a close friend of former times, a medical student then, who had lived at our house in Liberia for about two years. Actually, AS is the father of AT, who was recently staying at my place in Berlin. AS had become a senior physician at the largest hospital of Monrovia city, that still appeared very war-damaged. It was a wonderful privilege to be invited by him and his wife several times to break out of the UN bubble of experts during my study trip and to join a Liberian family that had survived the war. Very sadly, later in 2014 AS was one of the first physicians who would succumb to an infection with the Ebola virus.
After returning to Germany, my PhD proposal “‘Local and National Ownership’ a Peace Policy Norm? UN Peacekeeping and Self-determination in Liberia” was accepted by the department of political science at the University of Darmstadt. In March 2008, I returned to Liberia and conducted twelve interviews with Liberian artists and intellectuals and with UN officials. While working on my thesis, at the invitation of small art and lecture events in Frankfurt, I continued to exhibit my growing photo archive of the UN mission. I tried to present the pictures and their legends as entry points for further investigation, which is why I also presented relevant books, scientific papers, films, literature, and art. I was not able to finalize the PhD project for several reasons, but my press photo archive finally covered the whole era of the UN mission in Liberia, and I presented it in 2018 as part of the event “Spotlights on Liberia 2003–2018,” which I conceptualized and organized at the Afrika Haus in Berlin.*
To me, exhibiting the photo series is crucial for encouraging contacts and communication and in striving for more knowledge and a better understanding. Interesting contacts and networks were established over time, and I eventually found myself being given a number of magazines and books that were published by a German/Liberian working group during the war in the 1990s—for inspection only—before they were handed over to the emerging postwar collection of the National Museum of Liberia. I saw that this material was relevant for Germany as well and insisted that digitalization could help share the knowledge contained in those books. This information would be very interesting for German researchers looking into the situation in Liberia, as well as for more general critical research about global politics, decolonizing politics, and global political representation (for example, regarding the United Nations itself as an organization).
Still, this very personal background raised one difficult question: is this archive of any objective interest at all? The few occasions on which I have presented it have not fully assured me of that, to be honest. Can a constantly growing sequence of German and international press photographs possibly tell a truly informative story about Liberia? Can these materials—even if contextualized well—be critically informative despite—or because of—their explicitness in showing an outsider “Western” perspective?
EB: If we are to understand this archive as embracing its biased positionality—a personal selection by you, materials predominantly chosen from German sources—what would you like its future value to be?
UK: I’d like for my archive to provoke a challenge, a complementation. It would be great to see thorough research on Liberian press archives and the publication of a comprehensive press photography collection—one produced outside and inside of Liberia.
* Ute Klissenbauer, “Spotlights on LIBERIA 2003–2018” event flyer, Afrika-Haus Berlin, 2018, available at: https://archiv.ufo-uno.org/2018-Flyer-Liberia-WEB.pdf, accessed November 22, 2022.
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