Read an exclusive interview with Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher
Over the course of 35 years, photographers Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith have amassed an oeuvre that is equal parts art and anthropology, as remarkable for its raw aesthetic power as it is for its unparalleled access to the ceremonies and rituals of Africa’s tribes. The rapid pace of change on the continent, as children head for the cities, has given their work fresh urgency. Even as the pair continues to find new cultures to document, they estimate that about 40 percent of the rites and ceremonies they have shot have already disappeared into the mists of history. In other words, it will not be possible for anybody to repeat what they have done. Beckwith, from Boston, and Fisher, from Adelaide, Australia, have published books individually but work best side by side, occasionally forgetting who took what shot. They have traveled more than 270,000 miles together, often in great discomfort, in pursuit of their images. Sometimes logistics have made it hard; other times, the obstacles were cultural. For instance, permission to visit the Kuba kingdom came after 12 years of trying. When they eventually arrived, the duo met children who had never seen a white face before.
“African Ceremonies” (Abrams) is their best-known work. “Painted Bodies” (Rizzoli) is a pan-African study of the art of body painting. They are now working on “African Twilight” (Rizzoli), which will cover some 140 cultures in 50 African countries, including 22 peoples they have not previously photographed. Today Beckwith and Fisher share a large, airy house in London’s Blsize Park which is where they also keep their archive: more than half a million photographs, hundreds of hours of film, as well as 200 illustrated and annotated journals from 150 African cultures. Considering the value to humanity of such a priceless resource, they are looking for a more worthy home for it (The Smithsonian in DC and London’s Royal Geographical Society have expressed interest). It is not just that “these ancient cultures are a living record of our shared past, a map of where we’ve come from,” says Beckwith, but, just as important, they are “a guide for our future.”
Beckwith and Fisher’s work has been exhibited in museums around the world and they have had comprehensive exhibitions at such institutions as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the National Geographic Museum, the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. They have made four films that also express their interest in and love for Africa. Beckwith and Fisher received the Award of Excellence from the United Nations Society of Writers and Artists “for vision and understanding of the role of cultural traditions in the pursuit of world peace,” and were specially honored by Kofi Annan in 1999. They have also been awarded the distinguished Lifetime Award by WINGS. They have lectured widely at prestigious venues such as the American Museum of Natural History, The Explorers Club, The Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, and the Royal Geographical Society. Their magazine credits include major features in National Geographic, The New York Times, Time, Vogue, and LIFE. Beckwith and Fisher are passionate about completing the record of Africa’s fast disappearing cultures, and leaving a legacy for future generations, as well as bringing these ancient timeless values into our 21st century world.