by Nazia Parvez

This is an initiative that has been ten years in the making. It started out in 2006, not as an environmental or even film project, but as a documentary photography endeavour. An architect and aspiring photojournalist, I was then living in Freetown and wanted to capture the everyday reality of different communities in the city.

One of these communities was Kroo Bay where I spent six months documenting people in their day-to-day lives. During this time, I got to know many of the residents and, for the most part, people responded well. In these cases, they were anxious that I take pictures so that everyone could see [through the images] the conditions they had to endure on a daily basis. My goal was to document life inside Kroo Bay while capturing some of the spirit of community: the resilience, resourcefulness, playfulness and quiet daily rituals, rather than the symptoms of poverty alone.

I approached the project as a documentary photographer, spending enough time in the community so that people would, if not entirely forget, then at least ignore my presence there. This, I hoped, would allow me to capture everyday scenes that unfolded in a natural, organic way rather than those created self-consciously for the camera.

However, after many months, I decided that all the photographs I had taken would not be enough to tell the story of Kroo Bay. To tell the story of Kroo Bay, it would be necessary to also tell the story of Freetown.

For this reason, I turned to film and ended up producing a 30-min documentary with filmmaker Paul Glynn, and Reuters journalist and videographer Idriss Kpange. I managed to enrol as many friends and colleagues as I could to take part, do interviews, help with logistics, and make suggestions on what issues we should prioritise. People got engaged and I’m grateful to everyone who contributed! After seeing the film, my colleague Anne Bennett at Hirondelle USA, launched a six month campaign in Freetown to produce radio programming on environmental issues which, for the first time, sparked public interest and debate around the environment and climate change .

The film we made, (on a shoe-string budget), eventually took in not only the Kroo Bay community, but also distant communities in the mountains and along the coastline that were all tied together in one larger narrative: of war, migration, environmental degradation and urban poverty. While I didn’t publish my original photo-essay, it was the starting point for a much larger body of work, including the film and now the Lost Freetown Collective.

Ten years on, we’ve seen how much the natural environment across the Freetown Peninsula has been eroded and in some cases completely destroyed. While there are a few dedicated individuals working to preserve what little is left, we need a much broader and co-ordinated effort to safeguard Sierra Leone’s natural heritage and promote environmental stewardship. As one person summed up in Lost Freetown, if we don’t empower people, we will end up destroying the environment, and “the environment will destroy the country.”

See the original Kroo Bay photos here.