The brutalist architecture of the National Theatre on London’s South Bank makes it an unexpected setting for Charlie Waite’s photography. On the bare concrete walls hang pictures of mist-filled valleys in the golden dawn light, tree-lined avenues as peaceful as the naves of cathedrals, fields of lavender and oilseed rape. Each photo captures a fleeting moment – the second the clouds are aligned just so, a bird takes off, a herd of cows fall into single file under a heavy sky.
You would never guess it from the images but Waite’s landscapes of Libya depict a country on the cusp of war. Days after he took his photos, Libyans in the east rose up against their government. These demonstrations and the violence that followed led to the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi, who had ruled the country and crushed all dissent for over 41 years.
“I still feel horribly guilty about our project,” I end up blurting out when I spot Charlie in the corner of the gallery. I feel relieved by his surprise.
We first met in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, in January 2011. I had been living in the city since 2008, working for the United Nations Development Programme and later for the African Development Bank. Charlie was visiting to take photographs for a coffee-table book on Libya’s tourist attractions commissioned by a Malta-based media company on behalf of a mystery VIP client. I was writing the accompanying text.
It was his first night in the country so I invited him for dinner at a restaurant next to Marcus Aurelius Arch. The Roman triumphal monument once formed the entrance to Oea, the city that later became Tripoli. Today, it is squeezed between the Ottoman old medina and the busy coastal road. We sat outside, surrounded by very few diners and dozens of street cats. The restaurant specialised in a dish called al-jarra, which it described as “baby camel cooked in a pot”.
Charlie looked up from the menu. The whole set-up of the trip seemed odd, he told me – the brief was strangely broad, the organisation chaotic. The client had insisted that he return to the UK by 16 February, which would give him little time. Did I know, he asked, who the client was? I didn’t then feel able to talk to him about my concerns – having lived in Libya for more than two years, I was instinctively guarded. Yet it had occurred to me that whoever had commissioned the book was very high up in government and, in Gaddafi’s Libya, that could only mean one thing: if it wasn’t Muammar, it was most likely his son Saif al-Islam.
I should never have accepted the job but it was offered to me by someone I knew and I was flattered and intrigued. There were perks, too. I was given unusual access to some of Gaddafi’s closest advisers. Most finished the interview by giving me a copy of the Green Book, in which the “Brother Leader” outlined his views on everything from democracy to football and menstruation.
Other parts of the job worried me. I was assigned a “guide” – a squat, short-tempered chain-smoker named Khaled – to monitor my work. Khaled had business interests everywhere: for years, he had traded camels from Sudan to Libya, transporting them on foot across the Sahara. Later, he had worked for an export company in the Midlands. Most days, I’d spend hours sitting in his car while he picked up thick wads of cash and delivered them to different people. Once, he turned up with two black eyes, saying he’d been in a crash. Another time, we bumped into a friend of mine – let’s call him Ahmed – who introduced himself.
“I know your name, Ahmed. I am glad you’re showing Sophia a good side to Libya,” Khaled said. My friend shrank back. No one in Libya wants a government spy to know who they are. I had also started to receive emails from the media company we were working for, with new instructions on facts I could not mention and political details I must include. By the time Charlie arrived, I was feeling trapped: what would I end up putting my name to?
Still, on the road with Charlie, it was almost impossible not to share his enthusiasm. We travelled to the east of the country to the Greek ruins of Cyrene and Apollonia, where shards of ancient pottery crunched under our feet and we could clamber over fallen colonnades and explore empty amphitheatres entirely undisturbed.
“No one was there. It was as if there had been an exodus,” Charlie remembers today, as we look through the photographs on his laptop. This was not unusual; Libya’s classical sites were almost always deserted. Even so, the mood in the country was shifting. To the west, Tunisia’s dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had stepped down following popular protests earlier that month. To the east, Egyptians were risking their lives in demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak’s police state. Our guide seemed agitated.
A few days in to our trip, Charlie asked to photograph a newly completed housing project on the road to Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. We noticed the police first and then a small, ragged group of men waving banners and shouting slogans about government corruption. Khaled quickly herded us away from the scene.
Before then, I had only once seen anyone publicly criticise the government. A wild-eyed man had burst into the café in Tripoli where I was having lunch with a colleague and shouted: “Someone give me a gun so I can kill that Gaddafi dog.” He ran desperately from table to table, begging for a weapon. In retrospect, I think he was a victim of torture who had lost his mind. Like everyone else, I stared at my plate, too afraid to look up, and it was a shock to realise how quickly I had learned to keep quiet.
We didn’t mention the demonstration to Khaled again but that evening he banned us from leaving our hotel. Charlie took no pictures of Benghazi.
In hindsight, I should have realised the significance of that day. But it’s still hard to imagine that a powerful dictatorship could prove so brittle. When we returned to Tripoli, I found it unchanged and soon we headed south, deep into Libya’s desert interior, where politics felt far away. Charlie and I explored the oasis town of Ghat and the ruins of Germa, once the capital city of the Garamantes, who controlled areas of northern Africa that the Romans could not penetrate. In the Acacus Mountains, we saw paintings and rock carvings of giraffes, elephants and crocodiles dating back to when the Sahara was still green. We drove through the “great sand sea” to find the salt lakes of Ubari. One of the pictures in Charlie’s exhibition is from that day: a cluster of palm huts in the desert, their walls sagging with age and mirroring the curves of the dunes beyond.
It surprises me that Charlie could have taken such a serene image on such a fraught trip. He likes to spend hours, sometimes days, or longer, waiting for the right light, but our schedule was too tight. We drove up to 600 kilometres a day to meet the client’s requirements and tempers frayed.
One afternoon I fell out with Khaled. We had been travelling for eight hours and I refused to sit in the car for another two to drop Charlie off at his hotel and accompany Khaled to his office. Instead, I flagged down a taxi home. Disobeying my guide proved a big mistake.
Within a few hours, Khaled had lodged an official complaint against me and I was asked to report to the ministry of foreign affairs. Abdel Majeed al-Dursi, the head of the foreign media corporation, was sitting behind a huge wooden desk. His office smelled of cigarette smoke and pine air freshener. I noticed a switch that allowed him to lock his metal-reinforced office door. He did so and said, “Sophia. Khaled says you are very difficult to work with. You spend all your evenings crying about how much you miss your boyfriend. You are a grown woman now and you have to understand, we all need to make sacrifices for work.”
At first I was too surprised and embarrassed to speak. In a little over a week, al-Dursi would have to negotiate with the crowds of war correspondents arriving to cover Libya’s uprising. But that evening, he played the kindly headmaster. He nodded patiently as I tried to defend myself against Khaled’s lies but nevertheless insisted I say sorry to Khaled in person. In an instant I was five years old again, trying to formulate that magical apology that was just about sincere enough to meet grown-up approval, while still maintaining some degree of dignity and conveying the implicit threat of future retaliation.
The project went ahead. Charlie, Khaled and I travelled through the Nafusa Mountains and to the picturesque town of Ghadames, an old oasis settlement. The only hint of the violence that would break out within days was a government order that we were not to visit Nalut, a town historically opposed to Gaddafi’s rule.
Charlie left as planned, a day before the revolution began. He wonders now if this is why our client was so insistent that he leave by 16 February. Four days later, I also left Libya on one of the last commercial flights out of the country as the violence spread to the capital. I packed up a few belongings in under half an hour and had no time to say goodbye. Both of us were paid half of our fees upfront and the second instalment never arrived. The book was cancelled, one piece of news that I could greet with relief.
Today, we flick through more photographs on his laptop. They are, above all, beautiful. “It’s lovely for people not to have to question – and for there to be a direct and silent exchange between the viewer and what they’re looking at,” he says at one point. How funny that a photographer who dislikes “statement” art should have captured such a precious political moment.
I try to fill him in on more news. Did he know that those cities in the east are largely under militant Islamist control now? That someone earlier this year defaced the rock paintings in the Acacus Mountains?
“It’s so sad. They are such great people,” Charlie says. “I travel a lot and I don’t ever meet unpleasant people.” I don’t agree with him. A dictatorship relies on some doing evil and the majority being too passive or scared to resist.
Charlie asks what happened to Khaled. Ahmed saw him in Tripoli when the city was celebrating its liberation. Khaled shook his hand and gave him a business card, telling him to get in touch if he ever needed help in Libya al-Hurra, Free Libya.
Sophie McBain is assistant editor of the NS
“Silent Exchange: the Landscape Photography of Charlie Waite” will be on display in the Lyttelton Exhibition Space, National Theatre, London SE1, until 20 September