Today’s post was written by cinematographer Andy Bowley.
Hardest? That’s easy. I was in Monrovia’s largest cemetery, documenting “Decoration Day,” a Liberian national celebration devoted to cleaning up gravesites and (it must be said) drinking. It was unbearably hot, a storm was gathering, and I was stepping very, very carefully for two reasons: 1) Much of the graveyard serves as an impromptu latrine. 2) The graves are built above ground – so if you step too close to the middle of one, there’s a fair chance it will collapse. Imagine hundreds and hundreds of folks, tiptoeing around the edges of graves, avoiding broken glass and poo and overgrowth, carrying hoes, machetes, babies, little homemade buckets of paint, brushes and beer – kind of like a massive game of graveyard twister. Now imagine me in the middle, just trying to float my camera and tripod into place without bumping anyone, or spilling beer or paint, or God forbid, collapsing a grave.
I finally settled in and photographed a woman gently re-painting the name of a relative onto a gravestone. It was a touching scene. As she re-painted the date, I wondered how many interred here died as a result of the 20-year civil war that had ripped through the country.
I was very focused on this scene until I heard a KATHUNK behind me.
I turned to see three sheepish looking men standing in a collapsed grave. One of them was a radio reporter – his microphone was dented and his headphones were hanging sideways on his head. The unspeakable had happened.
It was quiet at first . . . and then HA HA HA HA! Everyone, including the woman I had been photographing started to laugh. The whole cemetery was busting up. Someone elbowed me and said “Hey – you should go and photograph them! HA HA HA HA HA . . .”
Easiest environment? No question. It was the Ray I.Riley Digitization Center – tucked into a glassed-off section of the lower level of a library on the Baylor University Campus in Waco, Texas – home of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project.
Pin-drop quiet. Climate-controlled. Spacious. Lots of visually interesting machinery and lighting and (unbroken) glass. I could step around (my boots still flecked with Liberian cemetery paint) and plant my camera just about anywhere.
Great room. But what overwhelmed me was the attitude of the librarians. I didn’t get it at first. They were so damned patient with us–with our lights and questions and endless requests and adjustments. But then I looked around and began to understand. One guy was leaning over a flatbed scanner the size of a store window, fastidiously laying out a gigantic civil war map book. Another was optimizing the angle of a phonograph stylus to align perfectly with the groove of an old 45. They worked so silently, so intently – like acolytes. And then it hit me. These folks were archivists — people who take ultimate care and patience in recording things as well as humanly/technologically possible.
Thank you Robert Darden, Pattie Orr, Tony Tadey, Tim Logan, Darryl Stuhr, Eric Ames, Denyse Rodgers, and Amanda Harlan. Thank you for your patience and hospitality. We had a beautiful time working together with you in your perfect little workspace in Waco, Texas.
Andy shot this footage with a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR and some funky Eastern Bloc lenses. See his two other posts for more on working with that camera and those lenses, Charismatic Manhattan Pinecone Test and This Post Is for You, Gearheads! Andy also edited this clip.
Andy Bowley is a NYC-based cinematographer whose projects have won many national Emmys and one Peabody. E-mail Andy: a b o w l e y at e a r t h l i n k d o t n e t