Renowned and respected photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, (who have immense access and insight to the continent) began taking photos in Africa nearly 40 years ago. Their individual efforts, which culminated in more than a dozen books and many awards, led them to one another. A shared passion for the beauty and magnificence of Africa and the graciousness of African people drives their work, but a sense of urgency fueled their magnum opus: a 15-year journey into the cultural and tribal ceremonies that are disappearing. Their access—which is born from trust from the communities they visit—brought them to document many of these sacred rituals, some of which only happen on very rare occasions. That journey far exceeds the confines of a couple of covers, but encompasses the 872 pages that make up their newly released two-volume book African Twilight: The Vanishing Cultures and Ceremonies of the African Continent. Within, Beckwith and Fisher document and honor cultures and traditions that have (some until recently) withstood outside forces and assimilation for thousands of years.
While in Nairobi recently, we took the opportunity to talk with the women about their book and their love for Africa, its rich cultures and people. Though they live in London (in a building that houses their two living spaces with their shared studio and a common area in the floor between them), the pair tends to spend half the year in various African countries, working on their projects.
Hearing you talk about some of the things you’ve witnessed, it doesn’t seem you’re visiting for one or two days. You tend to stay with the community you are photographing for longer periods of time, right?
Carol Beckwith: It could be weeks or months, but when we go in, we come in friendship. We make sure everybody understands that we’ve come with appreciation and interest in what they do, how they live and what they believe. People are just themselves—we try to almost be invisible, but be part of the community and have friendships and relate to people. We always write about 50 words of the language on our arms and our hands so we can greet people. You just have to glance down and you hardly lose eye contact—rather than flipping through paper and books… But you can still feel quite happy with people [without language] as there’s a way of just being together and bonding and enjoying life. We miss it when we leave Africa.
You mentioned earlier that at the end of each day, you both journal and take notes about your day as one way of retaining those memories. Can you talk a little bit about your process?
Angela Fisher: We both journal. We keep two separate journals. Carol is better at illustration. We discuss, at the end of the day, exactly what we’ve experienced, what we photographed, people’s names, things that have happened, and we combine our memories on things and then do interviews with elders asking questions. It’s terribly easy to forget after a while, you know. But if you’ve got it logged, that’s where you get the difference.
These are your 16th and 17th books. In a way, you’ve taken it upon yourselves to document these ceremonies and traditions that are disappearing. How did that become a personal journey for you?
CB: We both came in, without knowing each other, by way of a deep appreciation of the Maasai, Maasai warriors, Maasai women, of their beadwork, their creativity, their amazing rituals. They’re like nothing we’ve ever seen in Africa. All of this isn’t just about decoration. It all has a deeper meaning; everything a woman or man wears has a coded message: it tells if he or she is single; if they’ve had a child; if their spouse is alive or has died; if he or she is wealthy. It’s all fascinating. A person wears their story… and the story is read by everyone around them.
And you feel that you’ve came to some realizations during your decades of work there?
AF: It’s living with a feeling that you’re not out there on your own. You have a sense of belonging because you do belong to a community. There are rites of passage; you go through each age set with a group; they become your soulmates, as well as your family, as well as a community.
There’s also a feeling in Africa that people are much more attached to nature. What happens in the Western world is that you take somebody out of nature, you put them in a city, and they can get isolated. They can get removed from a bigger force of life—something that makes you feel that you are not just you, but you belong in the environment.
Are there realizations or experiences you put to practice in your life when you’re back in London?
CB: Something that’s really interesting in Africa is that ceremony controls rites of passage that move people from one stage to another, giving them a sense of definition, of what’s expected of them. They’re part of a big generation who hold the same values and they’re part of a bigger community. Those factors playing together make a very stable and harmonious potential coexistence in very big communities or villages. You’re part of an age generation for your entire lifetime. You go through all of these rituals together. You share the challenges.
The entire community rises to make sure that poverty doesn’t exist—which is extraordinary; that level of generosity, you don’t see that so much elsewhere.
AF: The other thing we’ve really experienced for the first time is living in an egalitarian society. It’s such an interesting feeling where the pressure is taken off. You, as an individual, know that if you’re out herding and someone’s receiving gifts or food or something from the outside world, or even from another group, you will be cared for. Everyone will be cared for. Everyone thinks of everyone else.
And it was funny leaving it because you sort of think to yourself, “Oh my, now we have to go back into that other world,” which is such a different challenge.
Images courtesy of African Twilight: The Vanishing Cultures and Ceremonies of the African Continent by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, Rizzoli, 2018.