"Our Job Here Is Not Easy"


Radriffa slept sideways on the bed beneath barred windows, the morning light filling the room to wake him gently. His father, Peter Toby, sat beside him listening to the crackle of a handheld radio, taking in the day”s headlines. It was quiet that morning in Monrovia, and I stood in the corner of Toby”s one-room household processing that awkward feeling that comes when you peer into someone”s intimate moments. As a twenty-five year old grad student from the U.S. I felt more than out of place in that West African home, but for a few hours that morning I was considered part of the family. The rooster crowed. I took a few more pictures, thinking about the absurdity of our profession.

The rooster crowed. I took a few more pictures, thinking about the absurdity of our profession.

I met Toby on our second day in Liberia. We had walked into the city from our guesthouse in Congo Town, and the streets were alive. My colleague Andrew and I took in the vibrant color and flavor of Liberian culture until finally we reached the office of The New Democrat, where we would be embedded for two weeks. Of the thirty or so newspapers in Monrovia, The New Democrat is one of the few respected dailies, and Peter N. Toby, 38, had joined the staff there as a reporter a few years back and worked his way into a position as one of the staff”s promising photographers. His beats were crime and sports, and he worked under the award-winning Liberian photographer and editor Abbas Dullah. In a small office past an archaic Heidelberg printing press, Toby and I shook hands for the first time and exchanged cell numbers. It was the beginning of our journey together.

For the next two weeks we talked about visual storytelling while I shadowed him in the field. My goal was to observe Toby”s workflow, and offer advice where appropriate to navigate toward a more efficient and visually sophisticated newspaper. As a young storyteller myself with little newspaper experience, I learned a lot about covering news. Toby worked his beats like clockwork – strategically positioning himself and always in communication with his most reliable sources. Since he had no formal training in photography, I was able to coach him in the things he was most eager to improve upon. We would do workshops on composition or ambient light portraiture, and the next day I would watch as Toby implemented what we had discussed on an assignment. He soaked up our conversations like a sponge, and as we practiced our craft together, we gained a mutual respect.

I learned that it”s difficult to be a photojournalist in Liberia. Every photojournalist is also a reporter and a writer, by necessity. On top of that, photographing in a post-conflict society means each day is a battle for trust. “It”s just hard for people to trust you when it comes to photos,” Toby said to me while covering a story at the Temple of Justice. “People feel when you take their picture you will do something negative with it, so they are afraid.” He lifted his camera to show me some images he had just taken, pointing to his favorites. “Our job here is not easy.”

From the perspective of a privileged Westerner, neither is life. Standing in that dark corner of Toby”s one-room home, the simplicity of his lifestyle was written all over the scene. I could tell Toby wanted me there though, to see how how he lived, how he loves his family. In that moment I knew he understood the value of pictures. I was invited there to complete the story. His story. Toby knelt by his son to dress him for school, and after a few moments they raised their hands together, thanked God for the day and walked out the door. When I flew into Monrovia two weeks earlier I had no idea I would develop such a close relationship with a Liberian reporter, much less a friendship. That last afternoon Toby thanked me for everything, and I left unsure who had gained the most.

About Bob Miller

Bob Miller is a freelance photographer and multimedia storyteller.