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G2: The calm before the storm: Charlie Waite accepted a commission from a mysterious client to photograph Libya - and found that he had created a portrait of the country in the last days of Gaddafi, he tells Patrick Kingsley

July 3, 2014

Patrick Kingsley



When landscape photographer Charlie Waite left Libya in February 2011, at the end of a month-long assignment to make a coffee-table book, there were a couple of things he was in the dark about. He still wasn't sure who had commissioned him. And he had no idea he was leaving just 12 hours before the start of the revolution.

"It was brilliantly concealed, this powder-keg that was about to explode. It just wasn't evident," remembers Waite, who visited many of the places that would days later become the major flashpoints in the civil war - including the eastern city of Benghazi. "It was just like a western city. Everyone was going about their business perfectly normally."

In fact, Waite's serene shots of Libya's most beautiful vistas form one of the last records of the country before it teetered into still-ongoing unrest. Waite didn't know it at the time, but he had unwittingly captured the calm before the storm that toppled the country's sadistic dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.

Waite travelled all across Libya on a trip paid for by a mysterious benefactor whose influence allowed him access to all of the country's main sights, as well as its best hotels. A Maltese publishing house had commissioned him, and paid him half his fees upfront, but they refused to reveal their client's identity. He was never allowed to escape the company of a series of government minders.

Still, he found plenty to photograph - ruins in Leptis Magna, the desert near the Ubari lakes, and a manmade river in Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown. But what he never found was opposition to the dictator. "Everyone appeared very pro-Gaddafi," says Waite. "They had pictures of him in their 4x4s. I've never seen so many photographs and paintings of one person. Some of them were the size of a house. As you went along the autoroute, they were every 150 metres. There was constant reference to 'my leader', 'my wonderful leader'."

And yet within half a day of Waite's departure - a day that had eerily been specified months in advance by his employers - there was full-scale rebellion against Gaddafi. By the end of the month the rebels controlled several towns, including ones Waite had visited. By September, Gaddafi was dead - shot, beaten and humiliated by a militia in Sirte.

For some, this might have seemed a natural turn of events. It followed a pattern of revolutions that had begun in the countries to Libya's west and east: Tunisia and Egypt. But it was a shock to Waite because no one had dared even talk to him about the events in Cairo and Tunis. "I did ask those questions - inevitable questions that you'd ask about next-door countries," Waite recalls. "But it was as if I hadn't asked the question. It was most extraordinary. Anything that required them to answer in a negative way about Gaddafi, they just blocked it. They chose not to hear it."

In the end, the book got blocked too. Waite's mysterious employer suddenly pulled out of the project, several months into the civil war. "As you will appreciate," Waite was told by a middle-man, "the country now is in a civil war, and I'm afraid your payment will not be forthcoming, and the book will not be finished."

"And that was it," remembers Waite.

Waite only got one hint of who his secret boss was. It was his second-last day in Libya, and he finally decided to press one of his hosts for the truth. "I asked him: can you enlighten me about who asked me to do this book? And he just turned and looked at this huge portrait of Gaddafi."

Silent Exchange by Charlie Waite is on at the National Theatre until 16 August. charliewaite.com

On the web

See a gallery of Charlie Waite's photographs from Libya

theguardian.com/artanddesign

Captions:

Previous page: The Ubari lakes in Fazzan, Libya

Right: Mausoleum in Tripoli (part of the Silent Exchange exhibition);

(far right)

the team of government minders who accompanied Waite on his travels

From far left: A lone traveller in the Ubari desert;

Qasr al Haj, the 12th-century Pilgrim's Castle in Tripolitania; and one of the ubiquitous portraits of Muammar Gaddafi, on a hotel wall



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Source: Guardian (UK)


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