Shifting Perspectives: Liberia Through Different Lenses

January 27, 2010 at 10:40 pm Leave a comment

An SF Chronicle Photo Essay

Marin County residents Cate Biggs and Nancy Farese recently traveled to the West African country of Liberia. Their mission was to document, through photography and interviews, the work of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) active in the country’s recovery and reconstruction following the bloody civil wars of 1989-2003. NGOs are involved in everything from relief and humanitarian aid, to civil society support, to political and economic development in countries around the world.  In Liberia, international NGOs collaborate with local grassroots community organizations, the United Nations, donor countries, and the Government of Liberia to move the country toward sustainable peace and prosperity.

Under current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female Head of State on the continent, Liberia represented to Biggs and Farese a mosaic of all that is of concern, as well as all that can be celebrated in Africa in the 21st century.  It seemed to be a fascinating case study of the challenges faced by countries in the region, as well as an intense laboratory where debates about how to meet these challenges are currently playing out.  Against the backdrop of controversy in the global media about the effectiveness of international aid to Africa, Biggs and Farese set out to show there are no easy answers, and to shine a light on the complexities and “gray areas” associated with putting a country such as Liberia back together and onto a course out of poverty.

Of particular interest was the current focus on women’s empowerment, a prominent trend in the development field today, and the subject of recent books such as Nicholas Kristof’s and Sheryl Wu Dunn’s Half the Sky.  Biggs and Farese sought to go behind the statistics to illustrate, through visual images and narrative, what women acting as agents of change look like in this unique country at this critical juncture – in family and community life, health care, education, employment, security, peacebuilding, and politics. They also wanted to demonstrate how these women are being supported by a wide range of stakeholders who are mixing different models and collaborating in new ways to maximize the relevance and value of aid to Liberia.

Both Biggs and Farese had traveled separately in Africa in the past, documenting the work of other NGOs (Biggs through writing, Farese through photography). This is their first project together under the auspices of PhotoPhilanthropy. Through similar projects, they hope to broaden the concept of donor education to reach not only those who have the means to give privately to international NGOs, but also those who pay taxes contributing to foreign aid programs that support these organizations.  Their goal is to illustrate the nuances of development issues, and to help build an educated public committed to social justice and the realization of individual potential everywhere.  In this particular project examining women’s empowerment programs in Liberia, they hope to highlight what the experience of these women can teach daughters, wives, and mothers in this country, and to build these connections.

For two weeks in early November, these Bay Area women traveled with Mercy Corps, visiting rural programs in Liberia run by the highly respected international NGO based in Portland, Oregon.  They also visited programs run by the Carter Center, Right to Play, and the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project.  For larger context, they conducted personal, on-site interviews with Emily Stanger from the Liberian Ministry of Gender Development; Dominic Sam, Director of the UN Development Program in Liberia; and the Honorable Madame President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Biggs and Farese’s work will be available to their subjects for use in public outreach.  A full collection of their images and insights will be compiled in multi-media formats in 2010.  More details about the trip are available on their blog ( and in a recent photo essay for the SF Chronicle (

Nancy Farese is a social documentary photographer and pioneer of the concept of Photo Philanthropy: Photography for Social Awareness (, providing photographic support to non-profit organizations to help document and promote causes. Her work has been published in association with a wide range of charitable organizations in Africa and the US, including The Infectious Disease Institutes in Uganda, Wood River Land Trust, International Rescue Committee, and Envisions Schools. She has a BA from Vanderbilt University.

Cate Biggs is a freelance writer and consultant. She is the Lead Writer of the World Savvy Monitor ( – a series of comprehensive guides for understanding current news and conversation in the global community. In collaboration with education non-profit World Savvy, Cate has researched and written in-depth primers for teachers and the general public on topics such as Sudan, Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran, and Mexico; as well as Democracy Around the World, Global Poverty and International Development, Human Migration, and the Global Status of Women. Cate has also participated in and written about international youth conflict prevention programs in Rwanda. She has a B.A. from Yale and a Masters in Social Welfare Management and Planning from the University of California at Berkeley.


Entry filed under: Cate & Nancy, Liberia, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

Cate Biggs and Nancy Farese in Liberia, 2009

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