Michael Palin, with his greying hair and reading glasses swinging in his hand, has just arrived on stage. The audience quietens, as they wait in anticipation for what will happen next. You'd be forgiven for thinking that they are here to see the eminent funny man who, with an illustrious career as one sixth of Monty Python and a distinguished reputation as a travel documentarian, has transcended the generations to become one of the nation's most loved personalities. (Admittedly, this was, for me, one of the huge draws of the evening - that and the £5 admission ticket which just begged to be bought).
The reason, however, he was here tonight at the Royal Geographical Society was to present the latest in his occasional interview series of 'Michael Meets...' where Palin introduces to the audience the sort of people he meets on his travels: 'Not well-known, but with great stories to tell.' The only condition, Palin animatedly tells the assortment of people waiting eagerly in the lecture theatre, is that the guest star cannot be British, as this allows the world to be glimpsed from a different perspective. With previous interviewees including Maan Barau who guided Michael down the Brahmaputra valley during his Himalaya series, and Musa Ibrahim who provided an insight into life as a refugee after travelling to Britain from Somalia, it's fair to say that Palin's guests are significantly inspirational characters with stories that yearn to be heard.
Palin's latest subject would be the remarkable photographer and writer Michael Katakis who, along with his anthropologist wife Kris L. Hardin, has produced a new book documenting their first hand experiences in countries torn apart by the horrors of war. Stunning slides of Katakis' monochrome images flashed up on the screen as he took the audience through a narrative of the people he met along the way and the stories he uncovered. His powerful images of daily life in Sierra Leone were particularly poignant, not least because they document villagers' lives before the barbaric Civil War that began in 1991. "Every single person in the images," Katakis reveals, "has been killed or dispersed." The room falls noticeably silent. This isn't a man who has just photographed faces. This is a man who has integrated himself within the lives of those he has photographed, sharing their experiences and their fears.
For each photograph that is displayed on the screen, Katakis has a fond - and often harrowing - memory to tell. A portrait of an elderly man dressed in traditional African clothing flashes up on the screen. Brandishing a flintlock and a cautious smile, he is introduced as Corporal Tamba, a man from the village of Kainkordu who had done service with the British military during WWII. Katakis describes how during the Civil War Corporal Tamba and his fellow villagers had formed a line across the road to defend their town. With their superior weapons, the rebels cut them down instantly. That deathly silence falls over the audience once again. Shortly afterwards, the focus switches to Washington, and onto a photograph of a man gazing through the snow at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington. The man is several metres away behind the picket fence, gazing quietly at the wall engraved with 58,000 names of those soldiers killed during the War. Katakis describes how he asked the man - who turned out to be a Vietnam veteran himself - if he could accompany him closer to the wall. "Just here is fine," the man replies. "If I go any closer, I can make out the names." The photograph captures beautifully the individual torture that comes from loss.
The evening itself was suitably thought provoking and heart warming at the same time. It was an extraordinary opportunity to see two distinguished travellers discuss the spontaneity and thrill of exploring new countries and recognising the spirit of people faced with devastation. I left the building enormously pleased to have been a part of the session. It may have been Palin's name that drew me to the event, but it was the empathetic, powerful images of Michael Katakis that has left a lasting impression on me.
Photographs and Words by Michael Katakis and Kris L. Hardin (with an introduction from Michael Palin) is available now, priced £25.00
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