Sierra Leone, Sunday Times Magazine

A dugout canoe shot from the Mavic Pro, Bonthe Island and the Sherbro River Delta, Sierra Leone, 03 May, 2018. Photo by Greg Funnell

Jena Bacong collecting oysters, Bonthe Island and the Sherbro River Delta, Sierra Leone, 03 May, 2018. Photo by Greg Funnell

James Green, of the Whitstable Oyster Company, talks with Allieu Bakarr Kamara, 32, about oyster harvesting that Allieu has been running trials on. Sherbro River Delta, Sierra Leone, 04 May 2018. Photo by Greg Funnell

Oyster smoking taking place in the village of Kgnama, Sherbro River Delta, Sierra Leone, 04 May 2018. Photo by Greg Funnell

A poster advertising the Bonthe Oyster festival, Bonthe Island, Sierra Leone, 03 May 2018. Photo by Greg Funnell

Oyster shucking taking place in King Jimmy village, Sherbro River Delta, Sierra Leone, 02 May, 2018. Photo by Greg Funnell

Women buy fish at dawn from a young fisherman who has been out night fishing, Bonthe Island, Sierra Leone, 04 May 2018. Photo by Greg Funnell

Fishing boats on a mudbank at low tide in the Sherbro River Delta, Sierra Leone, 04 May, 2018. Photo by Greg Funnell

Rugiatu (foreground) and Mabinty, collect oysters at low tide on a mudbank in the Sherbro River Delta, Sierra Leone, 04 May 2018. Photo by Greg Funnell

About this time last year I was commissioned by the Sunday Times to go to Sierra Leone. I was hugely excited to get another chance to visit this amazing country having previously been there with ActionAid to document their local development work. On this occasion I was asked to photograph a story on mud oysters of Bonthe Island, in the Sherbro River Delta. To do this I was teamed up with the writer, Michael Hodges, and the head of the Whitstable Oyster Company, James Green, and Dr Francis Murray from Stirling University. James Green had set up an initiative about five years previously to promote education and development of the local Oyster scene in the Sherbro River delta, to see if they could become a source of sustainable food and potentially a local form of income. To do this he had started the Bonthe Island Oyster Festival. Now to say this makes it sound like this was quite a large scale event, but the reality was the Bothe Island is rather remote and it takes a number of hours and a significant boat ride to get there from the capital of Freetown. Once on the island, there is very limited (non-potable) running water, and electricity only when the diesel powered generators are running. 

My room on Bonthe Island for the duration of my stay.

There are very few if any vehicles on the island, most people getting around by walking or bicycle. Every morning at dawn fisherman would return from having spent the night in small wooden dugout canoes. When the tide was out (mainly women) would head out to harvest the mud oysters from the exposed mud banks. This would involve walking in knee deep mud filled with razor sharp oyster shells. Sometimes they would take the dugout canoes and hack the oysters directly off of (and including) the root of the mangrove (a practice that Mr Green and Dr Murray were trying to discourage, as often this would involve destroying the mangrove root and in turn the trees. Once they had dieed back, the riverbanks would become more vulnerable to erosion, much in the same way deforestation elsewhere leads to soil erosion and mudslides.

Collecting oyster on the mudbanks, many of the women would get cuts to feet and ankles that would have a hard time healing.

We spent a number of days on the island, staying in a small two storey building (a rarity on the island). I would get up most mornings and wonder into the local market or villages on my own to make the most of the good dawn light. After a few days of doing this the locals were relatively used to me and I could shoot somewhat uninhibited, I’d often teamed up with one of the local students working with Dr Murray and therefore get to utilise their local knowledge and language skills. I always find it interesting working in these situations, trying to walk the tightrope between being the obvious outsider but striving to make photos that feel very observed, rather than constructed. On this assignment I was shooting with my Fujifilm X setup which included (at the time) the XT2 and the X-Pro 2. The cameras are much smaller than my normal DSLR set-up and they are therefore much less obtrusive and intimidating. Using the electronic shutter they are totally silent; when you are photographing at dawn on an island with no cars and little electricity with just the sounds of the lapping water and the bush, this is surprisingly important. 

Shooting with the trusty Fujifilm X-Pro 2. Weather sealing in these conditions is a bonus.

On this trip I did also decide to use a drone, flying my Mavic Pro (often taking off and landing on two small planks of wood when flying off the mudbanks). This allowed me to get a real sense of the landscape and show the island and the community in context that I simply wouldn’t be able to do any other way. I did feel a sense of guilt however using this as once or twice I felt flying it too far away from where I was might cause some distress to anyone it happened upon - and loud buzzing drone is the antithesis of my softly softly approach and so I tried to use it sparingly. The kids however, as kids do everywhere, loved seeing it fly. 

Couple of the local guys enjoying the drone on its rather meagre improvised landing pad.

The photographs I made ran in the Sunday Times Magazine and for that I have to thank Emily McBean, Russ O'Connell and Leanne Bracey. I take comfort in the thought that when a magazine is willing to send you half way around the world to shoot a tricky assignment it's a mark of trust. I'd also like to thanks James Green for inviting us out on the trip in the first place, Dr Francis Murray for his fascinating input and knowledge along the way, Michael Hodges for being an excellent team mate and traveling companion and of course all the people on Bonthe Island for having us, and looking after us so well. The photos were subsequently picked up and shortlisted in the ‘Photojournalism’ category of the 2019 AOP awards.