Bermuda Artists

Documenting Life in Africa

Richard Saunders

Swapping a successful freelance photographic career for a role as a foreign correspondent for the US government, in 1967 Richard Clive Saunders (Bermudian, 1922-1987) became International Editor for Topic, a magazine published by the United States Information Agency (USIA), now the Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs bureaus within the US State Department. Topic ran from 1965 to 1994 and covered art, international politics and emerging technologies. As part of a commitment to cultural exchange, the magazine was printed in both English and French and was aimed at audiences in Africa, often focusing on Americans with family ties to the continent such as Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr, and a young Barack Obama.

Saunders stayed in this role until his retirement in 1986, during which time his photographs appeared in almost every issue of Topic. Over 20 years, he took close to 50 trips to Africa, visiting more than 30 countries, moving seamlessly between photographing heads of state and documenting rural life across the continent. “I never took pictures of what people thought Africa was about,” he said. “I was there to record what I saw when I saw it […] I never felt strange in Africa. It was always like going home.” In 1973, the USIA held an exhibition of Saunders’ work in Africa, which showcased 59 of his best photographs. The exhibition opened at the US Information Service Lincoln Library in Kumasi, Ghana, and toured the continent for two years, displayed in libraries, galleries and cultural centres the length and breadth of Africa.

Top: Women Building Lesotho Track, Lesotho, 1971. Above : Members of the 4-C Club listening to instructor, Upper Volta, 1972. Both by Richard Saunders.

“I was a witness to everything,” Saunders told Bermuda’s The Royal Gazette shortly after his retirement in 1986. “Whatever I saw, I was a part of — I didn’t try to change it, didn’t attempt to change it. I simply tried to document it. “In those days Africa was just beginning to develop,” he explained. “When I first went in, it can’t have been more than ten years after the first independent African nation had come into being. It was an exciting period — you could actually see the changes occurring from one month to the next.” During his lifetime, Saunders was awarded many honours for his contributions to photography, including the International Black Photographer’s Award (1982) and the United States Information Services Honour Award (1986). Of his chosen path, Saunders said: “It’s been a way of life for me that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

“Photojournalism has been a very rewarding and fascinating career for me. As I look at my friends who are lawyers, or doctors, I think how bored they must be. For me there is always a different room, a different sunrise, different people with different ideas — and always a new experience tomorrow.” Richard Saunders died in 1987 at the age of 65, just days before receiving the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the Bermuda Arts Council. The award was presented posthumously to his wife, Emily Saunders.

 Maize Harvest at Ejura, Ghana, 1972 by Richard Saunders.

After his death, Saunders was acknowledged by Congressman Charles Rangel of New York for his contributions to both photography and civil rights. Gordon Parks, who described Saunders as one of his dearest friends, told The Mid Ocean News, “He was a first-rate person as well as a very fine photographer.” The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington expressed interest in collecting Saunders’ photographs and bid for his work but his wife, who was the executor of his estate, decided that they should go to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, which is where he had wanted them to go. However, as a project of the USIA, there was a Congressional ban on the domestic distribution of Topic, and it became clear that an act of congress would be required to release his photographs taken for the magazine.

In 1988, Congressman Rangel wrote to Charles Wick, then director of USIA, about the best way to preserve Saunders’ archive. A congressional waiver was sought and secured, and legislation was introduced to move his work from the USIA to the Schomburg Center, which is now a custodian of 20 years of photographs taken by Saunders for Topic. His wife donated 30 of his photographs to the Bermuda National Gallery’s permanent collection, from which A Personal Perspective: Photographs by Richard Saunders is drawn.

Shirley Pearman, MBE, a friend and neighbour of Saunders, has generously loaned several issues of Topic to the Bermuda National Gallery for this exhibition. In the 1970s, Saunders sent the magazines to Pearman, a long-time educator and advocate for the arts, to share with her students.

A Personal Perspective: Photographs by Richard Saunders is on display in the Ondaatje Wing through to February.