Saturday, March 31, 2012

Growing in an Exciting and Challenging Profession

Faculty member Liba Taylor has traveled the world in search of great photographs

By Baia Dzagnidze

It was 1997 when photographer Liba Taylor first heard about Joseph Kony, the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. A journalist colleague working for UNICEF suggested that they do a story on the child soldiers of Uganda.

“Back then, nobody knew about Kony and his activities,” Taylor recalls. “Although I had visited Africa many times before, I did not really know anything about child soldiers in Uganda.”

But after arriving in Nairobi, they saw the news that Princess Diana had died.

Former child soldiers of LRA in Gulu
“I immediately told my co-worker that this would be in media for a long time, and nobody would publish anything else,” Taylor says. “We did the story anyway, and after returning to London, the situation was exactly as we predicted: The magazine which commissioned the story refused to publish it. The journalist decided to push it, threatening to sue them if they didn’t publish. So they did. Plus we sold it 10 times after that.”

Battles against difficult odds are nothing new for Taylor, 62, who has been venturing into difficult and dangerous places in search of adventure and great photographs since she graduated from college. Now working as a photography instructor at UNYP, she has had an interesting and successful career as a documentary photographer, working with many well-known international humanitarian organizations such as WHO, UNICEF, Save the Children and UNAIDS, and traveling in third-world countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The Czech-born photographer was 18 years old when she left Prague and moved to London, the day after the communists invaded Prague in 1968. She spent most of her life there, returning to Prague in 2006.

Taylor was nine years old when she took her very first pictures. “I went to the Prague zoo with my Czech Flexaret camera and took pictures there,” she recalls. Taylor used that camera for a long time, until it got stolen in India in the ’70s.

One of the 20,000 victims of a
civil war in 90s in
Sierra Leone
Since she never studied photography in the Czech Republic and was certain she could never get into FAMU, she decided to complete her degree in Spanish language at Bristol University, where she also studied art history and radio, film and television. Additionally, she  enrolled in a non-degree course taught by David Hurn, a documentary photographer with Magnum, at the University of Wales.

After graduating, Taylor started working as a freelance photographer in London. As she always wanted to travel, especially in Third World countries, she targeted the NGOs and United Nations. Those organizations started to realize that a photo can sell and attract more people, so they created their own magazines and needed photographers. However, it was not easy to get an assignment, as you needed to come up with a story. Moreover, the agencies did not pay for a plane ticket.

“You had to say where you wanted to go, get all the agencies on board, and make them promise you a certain number of days of work,” Taylor says. “They would help you with accommodations once you got there, but you had to fly there by yourself.”

Girl from orphanage in
Hargeisa, Somaliland
After working with a couple of agencies her name became known, and she started getting assignments from different international organizations to travel and bring diverse stories from countries all over the world.

“I knew a lot of photographers of my generation who were doing stories for the newspapers in London, which was extremely boring for them,” Taylor says. “I never wanted to do that, and luckily I hardly ever did it. I managed to make my work with the NGOs and the UN.”

Taylor has visited most of Africa. She hasn’t been to Angola or Namibia, but would love to go one day. She mostly knows British Africa, and has also been to a small part of Congo. There are lots of memorable moments from her trips.

“Once in the ’90s, I had to go to one place in Africa. It was just two of us in the car, a driver and me in the desert. No roads, just special tracks. He knew English but not very well, so I could not interact with him that much. The only thing I could do was enjoy the view, which makes you feel like you are high on drugs –  the only words you say are “Uh!” and “Wow!” At one point the driver suddenly took a sharp turn to the right ʻWhere are we going?’ was my question. ʻWe have to go there.’ was the response. They follow their nose, and you just have rely on them.”

Conditions were often harsh, but Taylor says she didn’t mind.

Outside of Mother and Child clinic in
northern Ghana
“You sleep in a tent and get water from a well. You get malaria, return home, get well and go back,” she says with a slight smile. “Some people spend a lot of money to have a trip like that. I was actually paid to have that kind of trip,” she adds with laughter.

Her work occasionally brought her into contact with celebrities like Angelia Jolie, whom she met twice, once in Sierra Leone just before Jolie became an ambassador for the UN, and later  in Sri Lanka. Taylor describes Jolie as absolutely amazing – committed, hard-working and eager to help. “She doesn’t have to do it, but she does and she is powerful in her determination,” she adds.

Taylor traveled with Jolie to the Jafra region in Sri Lanka, where they visited a children’s hospital. When they got there and Jolie saw the situation, Taylor recalls, “She immediately asked what they needed from her in order to help. Immediately! She didn’t even think about it. It was very fascinating and touching for me.”

Award-wining photo
shot in
northern Kenya
Taylor feels that the most important picture among her work is one she took on her first assignment in Africa with black-and-white film. “We were up in the north for about a week, and the moment I took the picture was the end of the day. I was very tired, and walking back to the car. I turned around and saw this scene: a boy in front of a hut, with I think it was a little cow. I snapped it. It was the very last shot on the film roll.”

When she developed the film, Taylor loved the picture. She sent it to Face to the World, a competition organized by Christian Aid in London, and won first prize. “I don’t know if that is my very favorite picture, but it’s the one that is very important and significant in my career,” she says. “[Winning the competition] was good for my publicity.”

One of her most interesting projects was “Motherhood,” assigned by an organization called International Confederation of Midwives. Those pictures were taken in Trinidad, Peru and Canada. They are quite explicit and graphic – some clearly show childbirth. Getting such intimate photos was not hard, Taylor says, as she was introduced to the women in labor by midwives working for the organization. “It’s always good to be introduced by somebody they know in the community,” Taylor says. “However, some of them said yes, but some refused. When they say no, you respect them.”

Newborn still attached to his
mother by umbilical cord. Trinidad
Asked about a possible negative response to such revealing photos, Taylor says, “It all depends how people see it. For some it’s fascinating, because they have never actually witnessed a childbirth. Certainly it’s a very private thing. But most women go through it – there is nothing unusual, and nothing to be ashamed of, that’s how we all come into the world.”

Taylor says she returned to Prague because she needed a change in her work environment. “It was not going anywhere, plus I decided to catch up with my hometown.” Along with teaching, she keeps busy translating, organizing her pictures and putting them in photo libraries. She is also blogging for the Czech edition of National Geographic, where she has her own column. Furthermore, she is working on publishing her own book.

“Things come unexpectedly,” says Taylor. “I do not plan anything.”

To see more of Liba Taylor's pictures, please visit:

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