Photo Books

Sara Terry: To Forgive, Not Forget

April 7, 2011

By Conor Risch

© Sara Terry

Shadows cast by a bonfire, Kongananie, Kailahun District, Sierra Leone.

The question, “What does it mean to be human?” has driven Sara Terry’s photography and her efforts to help other photographers fund their work through her Aftermath Project grant-making foundation. One of the ways she has explored this question is by trying to understand what happens to communities after war or other conflicts have upended their lives.

“So much [documentary] work is driven by showing how horrible we are, and we have to know those things, but that’s the general media cycle of war, disaster, famine, and those are all the inhuman things,” Terry explains. “I really think if we hold up what it means to be human then we start becoming it.”

Terry’s most recent project, which includes a documentary film, and a book and exhibition of her still photographs, focuses on a peacemaking organization founded by a Sierra Leonean man named John Caulker. His organizations tries to help Sierra Leoneans come to terms with civil war in which, between 1991 and 2002, more than 50,000 people died and many more were raped or wounded, sometimes by their own family members or neighbors in the villages where they lived.

According to Caulker, efforts by the international community to help Sierra Leoneans find some semblance of justice did not help foster reconciliation at the community level, where it was most needed. A special court tried and convicted nine main perpetrators but granted amnesty to all others; and most perpetrators avoided a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) because they had already been granted amnesty.

During the civil war, villagers turned on each other, often coerced at gunpoint. Yet after the war, as combatants moved back to their villages, many victims found themselves living alongside those who had harmed them and their families.
Caulker is helping communities reconcile through public confessions and forgiveness. His program, called “Fambul Tok,” Creole for “Family Talk,” is based on a Sierra Leonean tradition in which entire communities, which are like massive, extended families, would gather around a bonfire at the end of the day to discuss the daily happenings,

Terry began making a documentary film about Fambul Tok through what she terms a “perfect storm” of positive circumstances. She met Caulker in Sierra Leone in 2006 while working on a personal project about forgiveness traditions. Her work there was being underwritten by Catalyst for Peace, a US-based peace building non-profit founded by Libby Hoffman, who also helped fund Terry’s project on post-war Bosnia.

While speaking with Caulker, who worked as a human rights activist during the war and who was chair of the civil society advisory group to the TRC, Terry learned about his idea to create Fambul Tok. Caulker had tried to find funding for the project with the TRC and through other official channels, but the idea was dismissed. As Caulker explains in the film, the TRC was more interested in mimicking how reconciliation had been handled in the West in places like Chile, rather than allowing the solution to come from within Sierra Leone.

The afternoon after she met Caulker, Terry passed his story on to Hoffman, who ended up helping Caulker’s launch a Fambul Tok NGO. Hoffman also backed Terry’s effort to document Fambul Tok through a documentary film and through photography.

Though Hoffman provided funding for the film, Terry notes that they were both careful to protect the integrity of it, with Terry being given complete freedom to make it as she saw fit, something that is important to the documentary film community and has come up as Terry has entered the film in festivals.

The film is Terry’s first, but she was able to bring in a director of photography, Henry Jacobson, and other team members to work with her. Terry, who normally makes stills very deliberately with a Leica, says filmmaking is a very different feeling, and at times she was frustrated because as producer and director she didn’t have time to make stills. ‘To go from being a single creator to being a co-creator” was also a leap, Terry relates.

Yet the film, Terry notes, which is already slated to screen at festivals and at the UN, and which will be used by Fambul Tok as an educational tool, will be the most widely seen work she has ever done, which means “being a part of a conversation, starting conversations, engaging in conversations,” something photographers all want to do with their work.

The film, which follows Caulker as he and the Fambul Tok organization help people publicly reconcile, is something to behold: seeing a man forgive a former friend for beating him and killing his father is extraordinary and hard to fathom. “The contemplation and self-reflection on the role of forgiveness and apology in lives, in our own lives, the sort of transformative power of that,” is one of the major ideas Terry has tried to convey with the film, she says.

The other thing she hopes people take away from the film is that “the conversation needs to shift away from ‘saving Africa.’ I think that’s a sort of neocolonialism. It’s just as bad as when [westerners] took resources and slaves. . .Africa has answers, Sierra Leone has answers, and we should come much more humbly to those situations to partner with people instead of telling them to do it our way.”

Terry’s book, Fambul Tok, is out now from Umbrage Editions. An exhibition of the work is on display through May 7, 2011, at Umbrage Gallery in Brooklyn, NY. For more information about the film visit: