Martin Waalboer: A Dream Called Harper

photo from bookThe Liberian coastal town of Harper is no ordinary town. This much is immediately apparent when paging through A Dream Called Harper by Dutch photographer Martin Waalboer. The pictures, some in colour, others in black and white, show what remains today of this once-flourishing settlement of freed slaves who began to return from the southern states of the US to the land of their ancestors as early as the 1820s. The photos testify to Harper’s better days and have a distinctly melancholic air to them. With its mansions and churches inspired by the 19th century architecture of the American South, the town thrived during the 19th and 20th centuries. It was the birthplace of Liberia’s President William Tubman who remained in office from 1944 until his death in 1971 and the town enjoyed electricity, running water in the houses and a sewage system. 

A town in decay
This came to an end in 1990 when Charles Taylor’s rebels arrived. Between 1990 and 2003 Harper was overran three times by different rebel groups and the wooden houses were no match for fire-raisers and looters. But some of the buildings, though scarred and decaying, are still standing. Then there are the people who have been photographed in their homes and courtyards, in church, between sunken boats in the harbour and on the streets. Their voices form part of the soundtrack on the accompanying DVD, which has a selection of pictures from the book and others that are just as beautiful. “Harper is a reminder of the glories and failures of Liberia”, Vamba Sherif writes in his introduction. “And Martin Waalboer succeeds at capturing these glories and failures with the uncanny eyes and the empathy of a true photographer.”photo from book

Martin Waalboer: A Dream Called Harper (2013). With an introduction by Vamba Sherif and an essay by Bram Posthumus. With DVD (7:32 min.)

See Martin Waalboer’s website: For more information about Liberia’s settler architecture see A Land and Life Remembered: Americo-Liberian Folk Architecture

Heleen Smits
February 2014