Wildlife lover Brian Jackman’s fixation with Africa spans over 40 years, beginning at the same time two young photographers, Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, started their own exploration of the continent. Their passion, however, was with Africa’s rich cultural heritage and their life’s work has resulted in undoubtably the most comprehensive record of Africa’s traditional ceremonies ever compiled.
Exclusively for Travel Africa, Brian interviewed Carol and Angela to learn more about their extraordinary story, the lessons learned along the way, and their fears for Africa’s changing cultural landscape. This is followed by a selection of images from their masterpiece African Twilight, which lend some insight to the traditions recorded in their book.
I n 1974 – the same year I first set foot in Africa – a young American photographer called Carol Beckwith decided on a whim to spend Christmas in Kenya with a friend. She went for six weeks, stayed for eight months and her life was changed forever.
During her stay she was invited to meet the Maasai and photograph their most intimate ceremonies.
“Their lives are governed by 25 rites of passage,” she says, “more than any other tribe in Africa, and I was so moved to see how beautiful they looked, striding across the savannah in their blood-red shukas.
“Spending time with the Maasai just got in my blood,” she tells me. “I loved everything about them, their singing, their courtship rituals, the huge respect in which they hold their elders, and somehow those eight months stretched to 40 years.”
In 1978 she met Angela Beckwith on a balloon trip across Maasailand. Angela, an Australian photographer with a degree in social science, had moved to Kenya in 1970 after working with aborigines in her home country. Unlike Carol, who had obtained a degree in photography in the USA, Angela was self-taught; but they immediately recognised each other as kindred spirits. “We were a couple of nomads who happened to share the same visual eye and were crazy about traditional African cultures.”
The following year they decided to photograph the Maasai together, little knowing they had embarked upon a journey that would last a lifetime, exploring the remotest corners of 40 African countries, travelling more than 300,000 miles by Land Rover, motorbike, sailing dhow and camel train to record more than 150 different cultures for their ground-breaking books, of which the latest, African Twilight, has just been published.
As an African shaman once told them: “When you start, you own the journey; but as you progress, the journey starts to own you.”
“Sharing our love affair with Africa was the best decision we ever made,” says Angela. “We were driven by the same dream of capturing the centuries-old ceremonies that govern everything from birth to death, and are so glad we did, because nearly half of all the traditions we recorded now survive only in the pages of our books.”
As they say in the introduction to African Twilight: “The light is changing and the sun is low in the sky on Africa’s traditional ceremonies.”
In the field, cameras slung around their necks, they make a striking couple – Carol with a hairstyle as bubbly as her nature and Angela with her long blonde mane – and you soon realise their enduring partnership could not have survived without the strong sense of loyalty that binds them together.
Africa can be a challenging environment in which to work and over the years they have learned to look after each other. “Sometimes we rely on Carol’s charm to get ourselves out of a difficult situation,” says Angela. “At other times it’s Angela’s persuasive powers that do the trick,” adds Carol. But in the end their patience and perseverance has always paid off, giving them access to spectacular ceremonies, including some never photographed before.
Read the rest of Brian Jackman’s interview with Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher as well as the rest of the 18-page feature, in issue 85. In this, Carol and Angela share some of their glorious photographs from several of the tribes and ceremonies features in African Twilight; Jackson Looseyia gives the Maasai perspective; Emma Gregg looks at the role of tourists; we meet seven millennial Africans and Hilary Bradt considers her own changing outlook. Order issue 85 here.