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Face to Face with Jammeh: Jason Florio’s Photographic Stories of Power, Abuse and Pain in The Gambia

Jason Florio, a British-American photojournalist is well known for capturing striking images of his subjects. But what is even more striking about his work is the ability to capture and explore the emotional depth of people and society. From covering the Taliban war in Afghanistan to the aftermath of the September 11 World Trade Center bombing in America, empathy and human connection have always been his artistic trademarks.

Jason won and was shortlisted for at least 24 awards and did more than ten solo exhibitions across the world, from the U.S. to China. He has produced images and documentaries for some of the world’s biggest companies and organisations including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Geographical, PepsiCo, Amnesty International and the World Bank.

In 1999, Jason visited The Gambia for the first time at the invitation of two British friends who set up Makasutu Culture Forest, an ecotourism woodland reserve in Kembujeh village, approximately 38km outside Banjul.

Jason in Makasutu ©Jason Florio. All rights reserved
Jason’s portraits of people he met in and around Makasutu

“When I first came here I was very much focused exclusively on photographing a series of portraits of people who lived and worked around Makasutu,” he tells The Chronicle.

Thrilled by what he saw and the images he captured, Jason decided to make The Gambia his second home. By the next decade, he shifted his focus from portraits of people to expedition-based photography. Apart from photographic works, The Gambia was also a personal life changer for Jason as he met Helen Jones (now Helen Jones-Florio) in the Makasutu forest. They are now married.

Jason and Helen with people they met during their expedition ©Jason Florio. All rights reserved

In a voyage series called Silafando (a gift in local mandinka dialect), Mr. and Mrs. Florio embarked on a 930 km journey through The Gambia by foot to make portraits of local chiefs they encountered along the way to showcase the role of tradition in the society.

Face to Face with Yahya Jammeh

By the time Jason and Helen completed their expedition tour, the international image of The Gambia was everything but attractive. Brutal dictatorship was worsening and there was a roof of insecurity hanging over everybody’s head across the country. The president, Yahya Jammeh was obsessed with power and would crush anything he saw as a threat to his power.

In 2014, Jason was invited by the National Council for Arts and Culture to Jammeh’s village of Kanilai to document the Futampaf festival. At that time, he already heard stories of human rights abuses by the Jammeh administration, from media reports. That did not discourage Jason from going to Kanilai because as far as he was concerned, his task was just to capture the images of the festival and Jammeh, and nothing else. He was the only foreign photographer covering the festival.

Jammeh shows off his ‘healing powers’ at the Futampaf festival ©Jason Florio. All rights reserved

“Before that he passed me by many times, throwing biscuits from the car and hiding behind tinted bullet-proof windows,” he says of Jammeh.

But in Kanilai, Jason was in close proximity to Jammeh and it was the first time he saw him in his own environment. Jammeh smiled a few times at him as he spent the whole day taking photos of him and his entourage while they danced to the traditional tunes to celebrate the festival.

Jammeh and entourage celebrate during the Futampaf festival ©Jason Florio. All rights reserved

By the late afternoon, he found himself sitting face to face and chatting one-on-one with the president.

“I was there with one of his photographers and I realised it was just the three of us; me, him and Jammeh in this open area. His photographer said to me ‘do you wanna talk to the big man’? I didn’t know whether I should be happy or I should just decline. I must say I felt a little intimidated.”

“Jammeh was sitting on a low slung chair and he was leaning and I was sort of kneeling down and talking to him. It was a nice chat and we talked about my work and the portraits I’ve been doing.”

At the end of the quick conversation Jason asked Jammeh if he could do official portraits of him. Jammeh, always obsessed with himself and his image, accepted the offer and asked Jason to contact his protocol officer to facilitate the project. He left Kanilai that day captivated by Jammeh’s ‘nice guy’ image. But when Jason got home and spoke to his loved ones and started paying more attention to Jammeh’s activities, he decided to give up on the portraits project he offered him. He never contacted Jammeh’s protocol for the portraits.

Meeting Gambians in exile

Two years after meeting Jammeh, Jason headed to Dakar where he met a group of young Gambians in exile. All of them ran away from the dictatorship back home. Capturing their testimonies, he became more aware of the abuses going on in The Gambia.

Rapper Killa Ace, one of the exiled Gambians Jason met in Dakar ©Jason Florio. All rights reserved

“Meeting with people that had first-hand experience taught me a lot about what was going on. I haven’t had that experience before. I heard the stories but I’ve actually had no direct contact with anyone who was a victim.”

Jason produced the exiled Gambians’ testimonies for IRIN News. But more importantly, he built empathetic relationship to their stories. Because of that, he decided he’d embark on a bigger project to tell more stories of abuse in The Gambia. But there was a problem: Jammeh was still in power and it would be suicidal to document any abuse inside the country.

Fatoumata Sandeng, another exiled Gambian Jason interviewed in Dakar ©Jason Florio. All rights reserved

Celebrating Jammeh’s exit in the middle of the Mediterranean

On 2nd December 2016, it was announced that Jammeh lost the election to Adama Barrow, the opposition coalition candidate. As fate would have it, Jason was with a bunch of Gambians thousands of miles away in the Mediterranean when people in Banjul were celebrating the election results.

Gambians and other migrants battling for survival in the Mediterranean ©Jason Florio. All rights reserved

“The day Jammeh was defeated I was on a rubber boat with some Gambian boys who were just rescued from a sinking boat. I said to them, ‘do you know what actually happened in The Gambia today’? And they got the news before leaving Libya. We all hugged in this sinking boat.”

Jason’s image of migrants who were being rescued as Jammeh lost the polls ©Jason Florio. All rights reserved

On 1st January 2016, Jason completed his work with the migrants and returned to The Gambia to capture the history that was being made in the face of looming fear and uncertainty, as Jammeh annulled the election results and refused to step down. Among his photos that went viral was the one that captured Jammeh waving at his supporters from the plane as he was leaving for exile.

Jammeh’s last wave as he leaves for exile ©Jason Florio. All rights reserved

For the last two years, Jason has been documenting stories of human rights abuse from those who went through them and their families and loved ones. In March, he exhibited ‘Portraits to Remember’, a photographic exhibition of victims and resisters of the Jammeh regime, with Helen and American photographer Katherine Taylor.

On May 3rd, Amnesty International screened a documentary in The Gambia, titled ‘We Never Gave Up’, produced by Jason and Louise Hunt, a British journalist. It documents human rights defenders and activists who risked their lives to stand up for those who had been abused and tortured during the Jammeh regime.

Tonight, Jason and Helen’s latest documentary ‘Portraits for Positive Change’ will be exhibited at the residence of the British High Commissioner. According to the organizers, the idea is to promote dialogue and positive change by bringing the human face and personal testimonies of victims into the greater public arena.

A victim featured in Jason’s work ©Jason Florio. All rights reserved

As the plights of victims of the former regime take center stage in Gambia’s so-called new democracy through the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), Jason’s projects have become therapeutic for some of the victims he featured.

“They’ve allowed us into their lives and they’ve told us extremely intimate details about what happened to them in the worst moments of their lives. The emotional impact of hearing all these stories have been tough on us. The way we lift ourselves up is the fact that a number of people we’ve interviewed have said that just the fact they’ve been able to tell their stories has really lifted them.”

 

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