"Faces of Africa" Photographers on Their 30-Year Endeavor

David Braun
for National Geographic News
October 20, 2004

Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher have been photographing the people, cultures, and traditional ceremonies of Africa for 30 years. Between them they have published ten coffee table books and numerous articles for magazines, including National Geographic. Their photographs have been exhibited around the world.

Now, in celebration of their long collaboration, Fisher and Beckwith (photo) have published a new National Geographic book, Faces of Africa. It is a collection of more than 300 portraits—accompanied by a personal text—made by the duo over three decades. (See Photo Gallery One and Photo Gallery Two. Warning: Some photos contain nudity.)

National Geographic News spoke to the photographers during a recent visit to Washington, D.C.

How did you come to work together?

Fisher: Carol was shooting for her book on the Masai and I was photographing for my book Africa Adorned in different parts of the continent. My brother was running hot-air-balloon flights over Masai country and invited Carol for a balloon ride on her birthday. One thousand feet into the air he looked into her eyes and said, "I'd like you to meet my sister," appreciating how much we had in common.

Beckwith: We'd heard much about one another but did not meet until the opening of Angela's traditional African jewellery exhibition in Nairobi. We immediately discovered we were kindred spirits sharing the same passion for Africa's traditional cultures. Within a week we attended together a Masai warrior ceremony on the border of Kenya and Tanzania, beginning a 25-year collaboration that has produced ten books and taken us to more than 150 different cultures in 36 countries.

The National Geographic Expeditions Council has given you a grant to continue with your work. What does the grant cover?

Beckwith: We're beginning a three-year project to complete a comprehensive study of ceremonies of the African continent, recording in photography, film, music, and words the most important rituals in 17 countries. National Geographic is helping support this project. During our first phase we will be covering eight countries (Mauritania, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Mali, Madagascar), focusing on intimate ceremonies and sacred rites as they follow the human life cycle from birth to death.

Fisher: We hope to make a record which will preserve these ceremonies for future generations of African children, as well as for the education, knowledge, and understanding of the outside world.

Africa has changed much since you started photographing there 30 years ago. Is it possible to find ceremonies that have not been impacted by globalization anywhere on the continent?

Beckwith: Much has changed, of course. We believe about 15 percent of the ceremonies we have photographed no longer exist, affected by civil war, famine, AIDS, and political upheaval. In many ways we will be documenting an Africa in transition. However, there are still isolated pockets on the continent where we expect to find people maintaining their ancient ways.

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