Last month I was lucky enough to catch up with two visionary women that I have long admired – world-renowned photographers Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith, at the launch of their spectacular new book, African Twilight: Vanishing Cultures and Ceremonies of the African Continent at THK Gallery in Cape Town.
Following on nearly two decades from the critical success of African Ceremonies, a landmark book first published in 1999, their latest book African Twilight is a similarly dazzling achievement. Comprising two-volumes, this 872 page tome containing more than 750 iconic color photographs took more than 15 years to produce. In many ways it symbolizes the final trajectory of Carol and Angela’s life-long adventure that has seen them traverse some 300,000 miles to visit more than 48 countries in the farthest reaches of Africa. As a deeply intimate record of previously unrecorded tribal ceremonies and rituals from the continent, African Twilight is a unique and critical archive of the study of humankind. Particularly when you consider that an estimated 40 percent of the ceremonies and rituals so faithfully captured in Carol and Angela’s 16 universally acclaimed books – no longer exist.
‘The uniqueness of African Twilight is that we went further and deeper than ever before to find those ceremonies and cultures that until now were largely unrecorded,’ explains Angela. Possessed of an indomitable spirit, Angela and Carol cite will and diplomacy as the tools with which they approached the many risks, setbacks and trials of traveling through and living in remote parts of Africa for long periods of time. ‘It’s all part of the journey and has led to many serendipitous moments and beneficial experiences along the way,’ adds Carol.
Angela and Carol first met in Kenya in the late ‘70s, where their shared fascination for Africa, its geography, people and decorative traditions had them leave their home countries of America and Australia to travel alone through Africa. ‘It was a time when it was pretty unconventional to do so,’ recalls Carol. ‘Nevertheless, my father had given me a birthday gift of a hot-air balloon trip over the Maasai pastoral lands of Tanzania and Angela’s brother just happened to be the balloonist.’ Recognizing Angela and Carol as kindred spirits he arranged for them to meet. Although it took a year before it happened, within a week of their first meeting they were photographing a Maasai warrior ceremony together.
Then as they are now, Carol and Angela were united by a similar aesthetic and a passion for traditional African societies that has sustained them for four decades. In that time they have amassed more than half a million images and diary entries collated over many field trips and extraordinary journeys into Africa’s most remote tribal lands that have seen them produce sixteen universally acclaimed books and four films.
Their travels have taken them to unique initiation ceremonies into adulthood, rituals of courtship and marriage with insights into the power and leadership structures in Royal Kingdoms, as well as the seasonal rites, death rituals, diverse religious beliefs, healing practices and the fascinating role of the after world in Africa’s traditional societies. ‘We’ve learnt that being female in Africa means you are not as much of a threat and you are therefore given more access and trust than our male counterparts,’ says Angela, who together with Carol has learnt to leave western notions behind at the start of every trip. ‘The moment we embark upon a trip we slow down and move into African time, we also eat the same food as our hosts and try to learn at least 50 words of their language. The aim is that before we take a single photograph we have gained their trust – and that can take months.’
Angela and Carol’s contribution to capturing Africa’s vast cultural diversity and providing a comprehensive visual record of the most powerful ceremonies that move traditional African society through life from birth to death cannot be underestimated. Unsurprisingly, they have received many awards for their work, including the United Nations Award for Excellence, the Royal Geographic Society’s Cherry Kearton Medal and they have twice won the Anisfield-Wolf book award. But perhaps their best accolade yet comes from Chief Makao of the Wodaabe tribe in Niger. ‘We gave him a copy of African Twilight and watched as he opened it and studied it meticulously,’ recalls Carol. ‘When he was finished, he said quite simply: this is medicine not to forget.’ We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
For more information on African Twilight, email firstname.lastname@example.org.