A Tribute to the Man Behind the Camera of Liberia’s History


It’s was a hot and cloudy Delhi morning. We had just arrived at the Forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan (the Presidential Palace of India). Protocol from both sides proceeded to organize cabinet lineup in anticipation of the arrival of the heads of state of both countries.

By Axel M. Addy, Contributing Writer

Today in history, is Wednesday, September 11, 2013. We are on a State visit to India, where our President, Her Excellency, Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was to receive the Indira Ghandi peace prize, conferred on her by President Pranab Mukherjee. While here, she will also meet with members of the Indian government including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the private sector.

This was all new to me, recently appointed minister and my first state visit, still donning a clean shave, necktie, with no gray hair, and ignorant to the rules diplomatic protocol. So, on this visit, I mimicked whatever I saw the more seasoned Ministers do and took it all in all around me. Ministers Florence Chenoweth and Brownie Samukai (the military man) were my muse.

As we awaited the arrival of our heads of states and government, there was a lot of rambling in the back of the line-up that caught the attention of protocol. In the back, was a press pool packed with members of the press, local and international, with cameramen with some of the biggest camera lens I had ever seen in my life; all vying for the perfect position; for the perfect shot of the ceremony to come, the Inspection of the troops by the heads of state. As we looked back, naturally, everyone was looking for our guy, we wanted to be in the photo, be a part of history. There he was, at 5’5, buried among an army of photographers, snapping away. From time to time, other more familiar members of our delegation would jokingly call out to him in that Liberian parlance, “Garresen, make sure, I in the photo oh!”

There he was, our Garresen, in the Delhi heat, with heavy cameras and camera bag in tow, working his way through the competition to capture our history. He snapped away, changed position, and continued snapping away. Over the next couple of days, Garresen would experience a full workout in the Indian heat, from one site visit to the next, competing with the local and international press, ‘freezing’ history in time for posterity, one ceremony after another. That night we finally made it back to the hotel completely exhausted. I would have my first of many encounters with James M. Garresen, the longest serving Executive Mansion photographer (5 decades, from Presidents Tolbert to Weah). With everyone winding down, hanging out with the security guys, some members of cabinet all sat around talking about the events of the day, laughing through one story after the next. And there he was, retelling his story how he managed to be left behind; and how he managed to still make it in time to Raj Ghat, the burial place of Mahatma Gandhi, for the laying of the wreath by our President.

This began my many encounters with Mr. Smiles, Garresen, from UN General Assemblies, to state visits, to county tours, with his cameras and camera bag in tow, he was there. The usual routine, running ahead of the delegation to capture every moment of the President’s interactions; to winding down with the group at the end of the day to joke and tell stories of the day; to encounters in the hallways of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the usual “Garresen where my photo you promised me?” He was always with a smile, always polite, and full of many stories of his life’s journey, freezing in time, Liberia’s history being made, one President after the next. He belonged to the people’s party, and he enjoyed the people’s work. I remember him once chastising a younger photographer about “when they send you to do the people’s work, you better do it. Dah other one deh, dah nah what they send you there for oh.” In all of the travels, I was privileged to be on the delegation with him, he never deviated from the “people’s work,” not even to talk about the politics of the day. He was the consummate civil servant, committed to his craft. I called him Mr. Smiles, because he taught us all a lesson. In spite of it all, he was ready for the camera, although most times, he was the one behind it.

I recalled on one of our hallway encounters, we started talking about some of the funniest photos of Presidents he had and the memorable moments he captured. He mentioned, while he had lost a lot of the older photos during the war, he still had enough and one day when he had some time, he would work on selecting the best ones to one day do an exhibition at the Museum or put it in a photobook. When he was inducted into the Order of the Star of Africa by the President, this time he was the one being photographed, a proud day in honor of his work as a dedicated and humbled civil servant of the people’s party, for decades of doing the people’s work. Thereon, I would refer to him as Sir Garresen. His life is a lesson to all of us, as Liberians, that patriotism, love for mama Liberia,  means doing our best to capture, promote and represent what is truly and positively Liberian.

Fare thee well Sir James M. Garresen, Mr. Smiles. The red carpet is rolled out. The heads of states, dignitaries and family and friends are lined up. The press is fighting for the perfect capture of your final marsh in the great new beginning. The orchestra has begun to play Handel’s “Dead March.” Dressed in your national regalia, escorted by the angels of heaven. You have begun your final marsh to rest in perpetual peace. https://youtu.be/jQ9lz1fDkug

You are in the photo.