200km, or 124miles, or 108 nautical miles: the distance between Umuahia, Biafra’s capital in 1968 and Bioko, the island to which they have been ferried. Those who care about precision will tell you that the correct word is not distance but displacement which in geometry refers to how far out of place an object is.
Anyone who has flown over water toward another land can describe to you the immense, silent stasis of the sea. On an atlas everything appears to embody this stasis: the earth properly beaten into shape, nothing shifting, nothing bending. But for the first Biafrans to be airlifted to the island, everything has shifted and is bent.
They have just arrived, the first of many who will make the same journey. Isabel: the word hanging above their heads. Its E shimmers like a halo. It is the name of the biggest cathedral in Bioko, the largest church in the Equatorial Guinea. It is also the name of the largest airport on the island. Named after St. Elizabeth of Hungary, patroness of the sick, of nurses, of the falsely accused, of dying children, of homeless people, of those in exile.
Where are the men? An uneasy question presented slowly in the photograph. There is a war, and war is fostered by men. We know the answer, but still, where are the men?
They are dressed so well, these children. The colors are defiant. The poses are defiant. The eyes are defiant. Yet, nothing is more defiant than escaping a war with an umbrella and teddy bear.
Why am I attracted to the boy wearing a yellow shirt? No, it is not the boy himself, but his wounds that attract me. They punctuate his elbows, like cartesian coordinates. Of everyone looking into the camera he is the one with the least intense gaze. His eyeballs are fuller than most, yet he is not threatening.
Why am I attracted to his wounds? They are so tiny; I know they’ll heal in a matter of days. Is it because in the photograph he remains wounded forever?
They say that it is always cloudy and rainy in Bioko, that there is always lightning. Even in its driest months the island is always drowning in fog and mist and haze. Did the weather inspire the sad brown sheen covering the faces of the children, the walls, even the ground beneath their feet? Or was it simply a measured editorial decision?
A calculated image is different from a formulated one.
This is probably how it happened: the photographer, Max Edwin Vaterlaus, has been working in Biafra since relief efforts began to pour in. His task is clear: to record the utter devastation of a people, and to show the salvation proffered by his own people.
He photographs for about a year only in black and white. The images are the most haunting ones he will ever make. But his business, he thinks to himself, is to record, and not to feel. To feel is to photograph with an unsteady hand; there is no accuracy in the sentimental.
Then he hears word of a plane, the first of its kind, transporting children and women to an island across the sea. He follows the plane, and it lands in Bioko.
There is no war here. In fact, there is so much peace it suffocates him.
He wants to tell it all. He begins to photograph in color. He photographs relief items as they leave the plane. He photographs ships chartered by the Red Cross, leaving the port for Biafra. He photographs trucks to be sent off to Biafra. He photographs British Red Cross parcels, offloading from the docks. He photographs the cluster of newcomers—the women holding the children, keeping them in tow.
But he is not satisfied.
He is weak. He has watched them flee the violence back at home across the water, it is too hard for him not to take a side. Suddenly he realizes that he wants them to win. Not the war, but in life itself. He wants them to win life itself.