Artists' Statements: Pep Bonet & Sara Terry

Pep Bonet: Faith in Chaos

“If they could have gotten their hands on God, they would have killed Him, too,” Sierra Leoneans say about the rebels. The civil war in Sierra Leone, from 1991 to 2002, is labeled the cruelest in Africa’s recent history. Tens of thousands of civilians died, and hundreds of thousands more were raped, burned, tortured, enslaved, and mutilated. The Sierra Leonean amputees, their limbs cut off by rebels, became this war’s heart-wrenching icons.

I call my project about hope in postwar Sierra Leone “Faith in Chaos.” For five years, I have been documenting the lives of youth in Sierra Leone as they create chances for themselves in a land where opportunities are rare. Before the war, Sierra Leone was the poorest country in the world (according to UNDP figures). It still is, and now it’s in shambles, too.

I first visited Sierra Leone one year after the peace agreement was signed to produce a photo essay on “Faith” for the World Press Photo master class. I connected with the kids who were the most affected by the war but who had emerged as the strongest: young people, amputated and blinded, bouncing back to demand the chances that were stolen from them. Former child soldiers and members of rebel gangs were transforming themselves into police and security forces. Even kids who lost their minds in the war and were living in a mental home were succeeding in returning to the world of the sane.

I returned three times, each for months on end, to document the struggle of these youngsters. It’s a story that sheds light on a side of Sierra Leone (and of Africa) that we don’t often get to see—of stamina, pride, and self-confidence. Victims of war and poverty? Yes. But their determination humbles us all.

On what is their faith based? How far in life will faith get them?

- Pep Bonet

Sara Terry: Faith in Chaos

This series of photos is from “Forgiveness and Conflict: Lessons from Africa,” an ongoing photo documentary project that also led to the film Fambul Tok.

When I was in high school, I remember reading a newspaper story about a village in Africa—and the way that villagers dealt justice to one of their own who had committed a crime (a theft, I think it was). When the offender was caught, he was brought into the middle of the village to acknowledge his crime, and all of the residents formed a circle around him. One by one, each person addressed the offender by name—and then identified something good about him, something of value in his character. And so it went around the whole circle, the rendering of one judgment after another—not of condemnation, but of affirmation, a determination to bring the offender back to an awareness of his true self, to remind him so forcefully of his own inherent goodness that he would not commit a crime again.

I have thought often of that story as I’ve been working on this series about forgiveness traditions in post-conflict African countries. From a Western mindset, convinced that law and order—and justice—are maintained by punishment and imprisonment, it is a shock to encounter a culture and a people who believe that true justice lies in redemption and healing for individuals, and that truth-telling and forgiveness are the surest path to restoring dignity and building strong communities. It’s more than many of us can wrap our minds around.

I’ve worked on this project since 2007, with the goal of encouraging a deeper understanding in the West of these deeply rooted cultural values and practices, and of their role in building sustainable peace in post-conflict countries in Africa. These traditions, with their emphasis on forgiveness, strain our Western sensibilities and our confident reliance on a punitive system of justice. But we must understand them—or at the very least, respect them—if genuine partnerships that can lead to sustainable peace and development in post-conflict settings are to be forged between the West and Africa.

As Alex Boraine, deputy chair of South Africa’s TRC, says: “With its uncomfortable commitment to bringing the perpetrator back into the family, Africa has something to say to the world.”

This work is committed to “hearing” through images and words what Africa has to say to the world, to encourage the kind of cultural understanding that is imperative if the West is to play a meaningful role in peace-building in Africa—instead of creating a new kind of colonialism that imposes Western standards for “saving” Africa.

- Sara Terry

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