The Making of Ghana, An African Portrait Revisited

IN 1984 I was hired as a consultant to theFood and Agriculture Organizationof the United Nations. My job was to document a project in Ghana that promoted an improved way to smoke fish.

It was my first trip out of the country and going to Africa was exciting and at times a bit overwhelming. To complete my assignment I produced a poster, slide show, and a booklet, which were presented at the first meeting of theInternational Decade for Womenin Nairobi in 1985.

As part of my research for the trip, I came across Paul Strand’s book,Ghana, An African Portrait, published in 1976, but based on his trip to Ghana in 1963-64, when he was a guest of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president. He and his wife spent about six months in Ghana at government expense, traveling throughout the country. Often Strand picked out potential subjects then returned days or weeks later to make his images. He photographed in black and white with a large format camera and mostly made portraits.

The Ghanaian people are friendly and outgoing, and I greatly enjoyed my month-long visit. Over the years I thought of going back to do my own photography there, but other projects and books took most of my time. I knew that Ghana’s fiftieth anniversary of independence was 2007, so I began to think seriously about a return to West Africa and to shoot for a book. Someone ought to go there to see and document what’s changed since Strand was there. Why not me?

I first looked for grants to support my work since I didn’t have the resources to spend several months working there without income. I made a 10-day trip to Ghana in June 2005 just to see what changes had occurred and to get data to use in my grant application. But the grant prospect fizzled, and I decided that I probably couldn’t go to Ghana for several months without getting ill there. I survived cancer a number of years ago, but as a result I have a walking disability and a recurring health issue that requires IV antibiotics.

By the fall of 2005, I had given up on the idea, but it remained in my mind. One day in January 2006, I got the idea that perhaps I could do the shoot and the book as collaboration with other photographers. I emailed several friends and soon had five New Hampshire photographers signed up for a trip to begin in May 2006.

The other photographers are Gary Samson, chair of the photography department at the New Hampshire Institute of Art; Tim Gaudreau and Nancy Grace Horton, working freelance photographers; Charter Weeks, a documentary photographer and filmmaker for some 30 years; and Barbara Bickford, who has photographed extensively in Southeast Asia.

My task was to coordinate the travel to Ghana, and then to select, in rough terms, shooting assignments. Since we only had three weeks to work, we separated to various parts of the country. With such a short shooting time and lots of ground to cover, we hired cars with drivers. This was expensive, but the only to get where we wanted to go when we wanted to go there.

Of course, none of us is Paul Strand! We planned to work in the manner of Strand, and while he used black and white film, I determined that color was a better approach for a twenty-first century book. Most of us worked with digital cameras, although one fellow shot 35mm transparencies, and as you might imagine, his film and processing costs equaled the price of Canon prosumer DSLR. Others also used Hasselblad and Leica.

Ghana is not an ideal place for photographing landscapes or animals. The rain forests have mostly been cut down and what few wild animals remain are in only one or two relatively parks. There are no big cats, rhinos, giraffes, or large herds of antelopes. What Ghana does have is interesting people and my overall assignment to the others was to make portraits and images of people working, in schools and churches, in homes, or on the street.

I asked the photographers to work intentionally, asking permission before shooting and to set up portraits much as Strand did. Many but not all of the pictures were made in this way. A couple of the photographers were more comfortable in street shooting and they produced fewer portraits. Also I was not interested in the “concerned photographer” approach. Anywhere in Africa one can see and photograph the hungry, the poorly dressed, the sick, and the needy. While photographs of these aspects have their place in some publications, I was more interested in showing the average people, realizing of course that most Ghanaians get bye on daily income that is less than a Starbucks latte Grande. We did photograph some people in their mud huts, but we have been criticized by some folks in Ghana for not showing the modern McMansions where the few very rich live. In a project like this, you can’t satisfy everyone. I did want to photograph in an AIDS clinic but we were unable to make arrangements to do so.

Sara Kumi. Aburi, 2006, Gary Samson.

Strand made about 500 images during his six-month trip. We produced nearer 10,000 photographs. The good news of digital is that you can make so many exposures and the bad news is the same thing! When we returned home, I asked each person to send me their best 100 or so images and from that selection, I made my choices. Then, realizing that some subjects were not covered, I had the photographers review their images again and I selected a few more. I had originally planned about a 120-page book, but I found that I could not include all the photographs I liked, and the needed text, so the finished book is 168 pages. There was an effort to give everyone about the same number of images in the book. Production required about three months of selecting photographs, sequencing, color correcting, sizing, and placing into a page layout program. Then came proofing and making final adjustments to get the files ready for a Hong Kong printer.

I have much respect for Ghanaian women. They work hard and without much support from the male population. The book needed an essay to tie in with the photographs and I wanted to find a woman writer. This took some effort, as I didn’t know anyone who could do what I wanted. While poking about the Internet, I met Abena Busia, daughter of a former Ghanaian prime minister and a faculty member at Rutgers, the University of New Jersey. Well respected in Ghana, Abena was able to link her personal story to place the photographs in context. As was done with Strand’s book, we also included poetry, making the book more than just a documentary project. In paying homage to Strand, we made arrangements with his foundation to provide two images from his Ghana book as part of my essay in the book.

Publishing such a book is less expensive than one might expect, especially since I was able to do all of prepress work myself. The major cost was printing. In order to get a reasonable unit cost, I decided to print 3,000 copies. This is not many compared to Harry Potter sales, but a substantial quantity for a book of photographs. Fortunately we were able to work with a Ghanaian co-publisher that purchased a large quantity at just about cost. This meant that we got 2,000 copies at the 3,000-copy price and a substantial savings. The photographers all agreed to withhold their royalties until the publisher’s (me) cost are met.

Time will tell how this works out. We had printed books in May, but the distributor’s sales force began selling September 15, the official publication date. We are making efforts to reach the United States Ghanaian community and hoping that photographers everywhere will support this joint effort in publishing. As of early September, we were ranked number 172,870 on Amazon, but number 4 for Ghana and number 18 for West Africa.

Although the list price of the book is $40, the distributor gets 60 percent of $40, leaving $16 for me to pay the printing, marketing, and royalties. Sales of 3,000 books will pay back about two-thirds of what the photographers spent on the trip.

Now we are all thinking about another project!

September, 2007


Peter E. Randallis a New Hampshire writer, photographer and publisher. He is the author of fourteen books, nine of which feature his own photographs. His company, Peter E. Randall Publisher, LLC, is a subsidy publisher, producing more than 400 titles for individuals, communities, organizations, and businesses.  The company website his other recent photography books can be found at