Katherine Taylor’s is a Boston based photographer covering news and human interest stories. Her body of work has appeared in renown media outlets such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine. She captures compelling photography of people existing in varied spheres, revealing stories that go untold and providing us a glimpse into events, lifestyles and communities that vastly differ from the norm.
We recently had a chance to chat with Katherine. Read on as she shares about her photography, her assignment in the Gambia and more …
Hitching a ride – The Gambia River
How did you become involved in photography? Can you tell us a little about your background?
I was a hobbyist photographer until I had an experience that changed the way I viewed photography. I was present at the first gay weddings in the United States, documenting the scene out of interest. Due to the people that I knew at the event, I was able to enter the room where the weddings were happening, 8 people in total, and I was able to witness history through the lens of my camera. It was at that moment that I really understood that photography can be a powerful tool to connect to the world around me.
Where do you get your creative inspiration from? Is there any other artist or photographer who inspired your art?
I am most inspired by artists such as Sebastião Salgado, for his ability to weave beauty into the capture of social issues and Andrea Bruce for her intimate and emotional ability to capture human rights issues.
Personally, I am most drawn to stories surrounding untold voices, people who have persevered through hardship and attempt to capture the humanity within those stories.
How does photography influence the way you travel and see the world around you?
I travel primarily to photograph. I feel that by experiencing a new destination with a camera allows me to connect more deeply with the people and culture.
Sunset from New Senegambia Rd
You were involved in a project in the Gambia, West Africa, please share a little bit about it.
I was fortunate to collaborate with The Gambia Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations to document stories of human rights abuses that took place under the previous 22 year Presidential rule of Yahya Jammeh. The goal was to not only document the abuses but also give voice to those that had been targets.
Yahya Jammeh ruled The Gambia for 22 years through corruption, abuse and human rights atrocities. There are thought to be thousands of victims from his time in power and he remains in exile in Equatorial Guinea forced out by ECOWAS military intervention. The current government has instituted a Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Committee to look into the abuses and the victims rights. Jammeh has yet to be brought to justice for his crimes but with the marking of over 2 years since his departure, the people of The Gambia have been more willing to talk about what they experienced without fear of retribution.
Amie Njie – Ms. Njie is the widow of Modou Lamin Sanko, who was targeted by the Jammeh’s regime under the guise of suspected witchcraft. While Mr. Sanko was unlawfully detained he was forced to drink Kubehjaro, a hallucinogenic concoction of herbs created by Jammeh. Mr. Sanko died shortly after his detainment and Ms. Njie has struggled to raise her children and recover the trauma of losing her husband
Antouman Gillen – Mr. Gillen was a Senior Accountant under Yahya Jammeh. He was forced from his home in the middle of the night at gunpoint by members of Jammeh’s regime and would be unlawfully detained on two occasions. His property was seized and under the stress of his detainment he suffered a stroke losing the use of his left arm and hand. Mr. Gillen has struggled to regain employment and provide for his family since this time.
Antouman Gillen and Family
What was the experience like photographing and covering stories about the community?
Covering stories of the community was deeply enriching while also a process of navigation at times. I was going to provinces where most foreigners do not travel and the subject matter was sensitive and often times painful for the subjects to discuss. Although English is the primary business language, there are more than 4 major dialects of the region and I often needed to rely on a translator to properly interview people. That said, the amount of gratitude that was expressed for my interest in their lives and depth of the connection I made with subjects was beyond rewarding.
Ayja Balu – “We suffered a lot in their hands”
Ayja Balu was beaten several times and unlawfully detained for 10 days by military officers under former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. When she went to the court to inquire about the whereabouts of her husband who was arrested (and detained for nearly 8 months) during a peaceful protest in 2016, she was taken into custody. While being detained Ms. Balu was beaten with a steel pipe to the point of “blood coming out of my body.” She frequently suffered beatings on her head and face and continues to suffer with vision problems in her left eye from those beatings. At the same time that she was detained, her daughter was as well.
Dwada EN Ceesay – “I have been mourning for a long long time. I lost my brother…
I don’t know why and I don’t know how – he left home and never came back. I was the last person he talked to. He was a soldier…someone I loved…I went to the barracks to find out about him. I asked because I thought it was a normal thing to ask. I was tortured and I was asked to monkey dance over 500 times…it was very painful and when I couldn’t stand it anymore they started hitting me. They hit me with the back of the rifle.”
Dwada EN Ceesay, 39 years old still has the scars on his eyebrow from where he was beaten at the age 16 when he went to inquire about the disappearance of his oldest brother Ebrima Ceesay, a soldier who was killed under the regime of former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh.
Your subjects are really compelling. How did you choose them? Did you generally strike up a conversation with your subjects or just candidly captured the moment?
I was volunteering with The Gambia Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations who has been working to advocate for the rights of people who had endured human rights violations. Initially the centre provided me with the names and phone numbers of several people who were wanting to share their stories. As I became more involved in the project, I was able to meet many others organically who also wanted to be a part of the project. As for the process, I did an audio recorded interview with each person prior to taking their photograph – at which time I connected to them and learned more deeply about the experiences they went through. I would travel to their homes as well, so the environment was comfortable to them and intimate in nature.
Fatmata (Fatou) Camara – Ms. Camara, the Constituency Women’s Leader of the UDP, was not present at the April 14, 2016 protest but nearby and identified as UDP. Due to her political affiliation, she was detained for over 8 months during which time she was threatened with death and exposed to extreme torture, harassment and abuse while being denied proper food, medical treatment and due process.
Fatou Jammeh – Ms. Jammeh is the sister to the deceased eldest brother Lamin L. F. Jammeh who was a soldier in the Gambian Army. Lamin L. F. was jailed under suspicion of dissent and killed in 2012 while imprisoned.
How did this experience differ from other projects you have done in the past?
This project was different in the sense that I had not been to The Gambia prior to embarking on it – adjusting to culture, language and being an obvious foreigner were major factors to achieving the work I wanted to do. As well, given that the project spanned 22 years of human rights abuses, understanding the history of the country was critical to being able to do my work.
Fatou Sanneh – Ms. Sanneh is the widow of Ebrima Sonko, who was targeted by the Jammeh’s regime under the guise of suspected witchcraft. While Mr. Sanko was unlawfully detained he was forced to drink Kubehjaro, a hallucinogenic concoction of herbs created by Jammeh. Mr. Sonko had been a UDP organizer in his region, an opposition party to Jammeh’s regime, and it is thought that he was detained for this reason above all else. He died shortly after his detainment.
Fatoumatta Jawara – Ms, Jawara, the former Chairperson of the Female Youth Wing of the United Democratic Party (UDP), was arrested during a peaceful protest on April 14, 2016. She was detained for over 8 months during which time she was threatened with death and exposed to extreme torture, harassment and abuse while being denied proper food, medical treatment and due process. She was beaten until the point of being comatose and has experienced health issues since her release.
Ismaila Ceesay – Mr. Ceesay was arrested during a peaceful protest on April 16, 2016. He was detained for over 8 months during which time he was threatened with death and exposed to extreme torture, harassment and abuse while being denied proper food, medical treatment and due process.
Kaddy Samati & Baby Aisha – Ms. Samati and her then one month old daughter Aisha Fatty were unlawfully arrested and detained on May 9, 2016 when Ms. Samati went to inquire about the whereabouts of her husband Monhammed Fatty who would ultimately be detained and tortured for over 8 months by the former regime of Yahya Jammeh. Kaddy and Aisha were imprisoned in deplorable circumstances and Kaddy beaten severely
What was your favorite experience while doing the photography?
There were very ordinary favorite moments, like the smile of a young girl probably around the age of 3 in one of the provinces who had never seen a foreigner before and was beside herself with disbelief and excitement. And then there were deeper moments, sitting with subjects and holding space for them to grieve and cry while they told me their stories. And of course the connection to humanity in general, being able to bear witness to the hardships and consequently strength of people who had suffered incredible injustice and pain for their beliefs and sometimes simply for their tribal heritage.
Kafu Bayo – Kafu Bayo was arrested, detained and tortured for over 8 months by the former regime of Yahya Jammeh after taking part in a peaceful protest in April 2016.
When he witnessed the death by beating of his friend and fellow activist Solo Sandeg and he was also told he would be killed. Following that he was repeatedly beaten until unconscious, tied and bound to a table where beaten, violently suffocated with water, denied medical treatment, access to his family and due process. He has continued to suffer physically.
Manding Sanneh – Mr. Sanneh was unlawfully arrested and detained for 76 days after an application to run for the UDP Secretary for the 2012 legislative elections was found on his person. Mr. Sanneh then sought exile in Senegal until the fall of power of Jammeh.
Mohammed Singateh – “There is one officer there and he used to tell us ‘You people we going to kill you people all, say your final words. We going to kill you people and we going to give you to crocodiles to eat you.’” .
Mohammed Singateh was arrested May 9th 2016 and would spend 7 months in jail for attending a peaceful protest of the former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s regime. He attended non politically and served as a English to Mandinga translator (a common dialect in The Gambia). “I was seeing myself at the time as a peace mediator I was playing a vital role, I don’t go there politically I go there because I love my country. Even I was so worried.” .
Videos of his translations went viral around the country and he became publicly recognizable by the former regime. “One paramilitary came to me and say ‘ah so you are the cameraman. If they give me order I’m going to kill you.’”
Did you have any trans-formative moments?
I had many trans-formative moments! Being in a culture so different than my own and working on subject matter that was so sensitive heightened my sense of my own cultural upbringing and the value of what can be done with photography.
Maimuna Darboe – “Why do you people want to arrest me and torture me and do anything to me? I didn’t do anything…if I die here, I die for my country…I am crying, crying, crying…I suffer, I suffer.”
Maimuna Darobe was a Women’s Coordinator for the U.D.P. in The Gambia – an opposition party to former president Yahya Jammeh. During a committee meeting in 2016 she and 13 others were arrested without reason. Ms. Darboe has struggled to regain her life since then. “I need more help,” she pleaded.
Mohmmaed Fatty – “Anything they can do to help us, we are suffering”
Mohammed Fatty was arrested, unlawfully detained and tortured for over 8 months after taking place in a peaceful protest in April of 2016 under the former regime of Yahay Jammeh. He was granted amnesty when the current president of The Gambia took power. He bears scars from his time of being beaten with a steel pipe along his abdomen, arms and back.
When his wife Kaddy sought information about his whereabouts, she and his then one month old daughter, Aisha, were also detained unlawfully.
Momodu Touray – “They asked why I was at the protest and I say ‘I love my country.’”
Momodou Touray was arrested, detained and tortured for over 8 months by the former regime of Yahya Jammeh after taking part in a peaceful protest in April 2016. When he arrived in prison he was told he was being sentenced to death. Following that he was repeatedly beaten until unconscious, tied and bound to a table where beaten, violently suffocated with water, denied medical treatment, access to his family and due process. He bears scars on his shoulder from one of the many beatings.
What would you say was the most challenging about your experience, how did you manage to work around it?
Language was difficult at times, with differing dialects and basic ways of communicating about life and situations. As well, being a foreigner also had it’s challenges in the sense that I always stood out and sometimes needed to work harder to gain the trust of my subjects.
Mouhamed Jammeh – Mr. Jammeh was arrested during a peaceful protest on April 16, 2016. He was detained for over 8 months during which time he was threatened with death and exposed to extreme torture, harassment and abuse while being denied proper food, medical treatment and due process.
Kafu Jarju – Ms. Jarju is the sister to a former Gambian police officer who alerted her that Yahya Jammeh’s troops were targeting school children during student protests. Ms. Jarju housed several children during the incident and protected them from the multiple armed military men who were trying to forcibly take the children from the compound at gunpoint. Ms. Jarju protected the children by stripping naked and running at the military, the only defense she had. Her grandson Ebrima Ndure was among the many children she sheltered.
What was your favorite memory from your experience? Is there a particular moment you would relive if given the opportunity?
The sincere gratitude subjects expressed in being able to share their stories will forever be with me.
Rhoey Sabally – “I say he can kill me (Jammeh). If you die today you cannot die tomorrow.” .
Rohey Sabally was the first female victim to go to prison from the UDP, an opposition party to former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. She was beaten and would be unlawfully arrested a total of 3 times for her political activism. When others feared political affiliation during election campaign times, Ms. Sabally would become more bold and put on her “uniform,” jeans and a t-shirt of the UDP founder Ousainou Darboe a human rights lawyer and now Vice President of the country who would become discredited from the Presidential seat by unlawful arrest by Jammeh in 2016. In response to her family’s protest to her work she said “No because what we are fighting is too big – so that Gmabians we will have our peace.” She explained further, “everybody fear of Yahya Jammeh, 22 years, all the Gambians we suffer…and now, Al-ḥamdu lil-lāh, even you don’t have money but you have a stable mind. Nobody’s harassing you, nobody’s following you. Nobody will come in your home.”
Sagin Dennis Baldin – “They say they are looking for witches – how can I just look at you and say you are a witch? What is witch? You don’t know what is a witch…”
Sagin Denis Baldin formerly lived in Sintet village that was targeted by the former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh in a witch hunt. “My mom, my father, uncles, aunts, they were all arrested and taken…they gave them a special medicine to drink, I don’t know what type of medicine is that. They were flat down, they drink and they were flat down. Some lay there for 3 days or 4 days. They will force you to say that you are a witch – so many people are dead in our village. (Previously) Anything they say they will pick you up, arrest. To arrest someone is just like dinking water, it’s easy for them. Nobody’s safe…anything you said they’ll take you. Even when you are talking you use a tone and see who is passing because everyone was under threat. If you say, you are in trouble – somebody else go and report you, you’ll be taken. Everybody was afraid before these changes come (Jammeh leaving), everybody was afraid. This former government really disturbed the Gambians. A lot of people are dead, some are lost”
Mr. Baldin left his village for safety reasons but was followed and beaten by military officers one night close to his current home. To this day, he does not feel safe walking the streets.
Is there an overall message that you hoped to convey with your images?
I hope that my images not only convey the pain of the human rights violations that my subjects endured but also their strength in persevering since then, their courage in standing up for what they believe in and a sense of shared humanity across the globe.
Sumba Janneh – Samba Janneh was unlawfully detained at gunpoint by the former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh’s regime. While in prison he was forced to drink Kubehjaro, a hallucinogenic concoction of herbs created by Jammeh – a common tactic the former dictator used on people he believed of witchcraft. Mr. Janneh began to hallucinate but was conscious enough to recall a knife being taken to his legs and removing his flesh. He does not know why he was targeted.
In 2009, more than 1,000 suspected “sorcerers” were rounded up at gunpoint by the president’s Green Beret special guards and forced to drink hallucinogenic potions to “exorcise” them. Jammeh was rumored to have been told by a psychic that someone would overthrow him which is believed to be a main motivating factor for his witch-hunt.
From your observation, how would you generally describe the local culture and life about the people of Gambia?
The culture of The Gambia is very vibrant, complex and warm. It is known as “the smiling coast of West Africa” and I felt that most in the incredibly warm and gentle nature of the people. That said, The Gambia also struggles with poverty as well as being in the healing process from over 2 decades of a corrupt and violent government. I found there was a lot of hope amongst the people there and an appreciation for family and tradition. Being 97% Muslim as a country, religion is woven into the fabric of their daily lives and it seemed to provide a sense of solidarity amongst the different tribes and classes of the population. There is unbelievable natural beauty in the country and the food is some of the best I have ever eaten in my life.
Banjul street scene
What recommendations do you have for people interested in traveling to the Gambia (places to go, things to see, places to photograph etc.)?
The markets in Banjul, Serrekunda and Tanji are central hubs of activity and a slice into normal life there. The River Gambia is beautiful to take a tour on. The cultural experiences such as Tabaski and The Hunting Day are full of tradition. The beaches in the Kombo region are spectacular. There appears to be a lot of bird photography there as well, something I didn’t experience first-hand but know the region is known for that. And most importantly an open mind to the culture and the warmth of the community there.
Sunset over The Gambia – raw, natural, warm, complex, vibrant
Morning view from the ferry – Banjul en route to Essau
Finally do you have any piece of advice for up and coming photographers interested in documentary photography
I would say follow the stories you feel personally connected to, the ones you feel you are meant to document. Push yourself out of your comfort zones. Keep an open mind, stay dedicated and be willing to invest time into a project. As well, very logistically, if you can partner with other organizations that are working on the same subject matter as you that can be greatly beneficial to share resources.