Photojournalist tells of experiences in war-torn Africa

A girl soldier in Liberia appears to be laughing as she points a gun toward someone off-camera.

“She was threatening my friend with a gun,” said Michael Kamber, the photojournalist who took the picture. “They were having a good time.” The audience laughed slightly, not sure if he was joking.

Kamber, an award-winning freelance writer and photographer, presented his work to approximately 50 students and faculty members last Wednesday in the Allen Drawing Room. Richard Kamber, professor of philosophy at the College, introduced his nephew at the event sponsored by the Society of Honor Students.

Kamber recently completed an eight-month, 24-country tour of Africa. Some of the photos from the trip were recently featured in a series in the New York Times.

Kamber went to Africa in January to cover positive stories about the continent. During his time there, however, the four countries featured in his presentation- the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Liberia – were fighting wars. Kamber was worried he would give the wrong impression, but said, “as a photographer, you see what you see.”

Many of Kamber’s photos from Liberia featured child soldiers. They’re ideal fighters, he explained, because they don’t eat or drink as much, do what they’re told and don’t fully understand the weight of their actions. One photo features a child holding a gun in one hand and a joint in the other.

Other photos depict children who were not soldiers. In one photo, two kids were trying to shield themselves from bullets by crawling under mattresses. Another shows a baby suffering from malnutrition. Others show family members grieving over their lost children.

“I felt like the press made a real difference in U.N. (decisions),” Kamber said as he displayed pictures of citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo frustrated with the United Nations’ minimal involvement. “This was one of them.”

Kamber’s photographs also chronicle refugee camps, orphanages, support groups for women who were rape victims and prayer groups that met in churches or gathered in large fields.

He spent time in Lagos, Nigeria, documenting a community built on water. His photographs include a schoolhouse for children that consisted of a one room shack built on stilts to keep it above the water. There are also photographs of a church on Palm Sunday with its parishioners all in white, and a floating store that consisted of a canoe-shaped boat filled with food and being paddled by a single vendor.

Another shot depicts a Shell oil pipeline that burned out of control for five weeks, Kamber said. “This stuff is everywhere,” he said of the oil. “Everywhere you go. They really destroy the environment.”

Other shots chronicle the flight of Liberian refugees on the Ivory Coast trying to get back to Liberia. With the country in such bad shape, he said, you could imagine what conditions were like in the Ivory Coast that people would rather be in Liberia.

“It’s good to know what’s going on,” Kamber said of doing research before beginning his journey. Safety is also important, he said. He was always accompanied by a writer or other photographers, and tried to stay with someone who knew the area.

He tries to keep in touch with his contacts, and has friends all over West Africa. He regrets, however, that he can hop on a plane and in 24 hours be in a completely different world from the U.S.

“You take this for granted,” he said.

Besides his work for the Times, Kamber also works for The Village Voice. He covered Afghanistan and Pakistan in late 2001 for the Voice, and a three-part series entitled “Crossing to the Other Side,” which documented the migration of impoverished Mexicans to New York City.

In May 2002, Kamber received the Columbia University School of Journalism’s Mike Berger Award, which honors human interest reporting about daily life in New York City. Last January, Kamber was nominated for a World Press Photo award for his photography of Mexico, New York, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and for a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for his series on Mexican immigration.