In the summer of 2000 Michael Katakis, preparing for an exhibition of his photographs at the Royal Geographical Society, wrote from London:
``I no longer believe in countries, corporations, nationalism or unbridled capitalism. What I believe in is the right of the people in these photographs to have lived their lives in full measure, with hope that one day life could be better for themselves and their children.''
Photos in that exhibit, ``A Time and Place Before War,'' were of the people of Sierra Leone and they became for Katakis ``a sad family album with stories of murder, rape, and the mutilation of children and at the heart of it, diamonds.''
Those people include the children pictured here (please click on image to enlarge), or Sahr, Katakis's African guide, friend and protector.
Throughout his new book, ``Traveller _ Observations from an American in Exile'' (Burton & Park Publishers, San Francisco and Paris, www.burtonparkbooks.net), when Katakis mentions Sahr, you wonder if the young guide survived the decade-long Sierra Leone civil war.
``Sometimes I dream of Sahr,'' Katakis writes. ``He is walking ahead of me quickly. From time to time he turns, smiles and motions me to catch up. In front of him, is the giant spreading tree we often passed together. I try to keep up but am always behind. Finally, I am standing alone . . . ''
That Sahr might have been murdered makes all the more moving an early entry in ``Traveller'' in which, during a hike from one village to another, Katakis finds Sahr's story of a magical ``invisible suit'' as unbelievable as Sahr finds Katakis' tale of men landing on the moon.
In one of those great moments life affords on rare occasions, Sahr and Katakis roll on the ground, laughing in disbelief at each other. ``Never,'' Katakis writes, ``has an education in culture been more enjoyable.''
Katakis has traveled the world for three decades as a photogrpaher and not so much an observer as a participant in the life around him (for a podcast interview of Katakis on Rick Kleffel's ``The Agony Column,'' go to _ http://www.bookotron.com/agony/audio/2009/2009-interviews/michael_kataki...), many of those years with his wife Kris Hardin, a distinguished writer and editor who, as a cultural anthrpologist, was in Sierra Leone two years before Katakis.
Both have a passion for living and, despite the title of Katakis' book, a great if skeptical passion for America. Every time Katakis mentions it, often beng quite critical, he calls it ``my country.'' And a few months each year, Katakis and Hardin return to the United States where they have a home on California's Monterey Peninsula.
``Traveller'' is a book our foreign policy experts should read. Certainly sections of it. The people are real. As Michael Palin, another notable traveller, writes in the foreword, he's watched Katakis go ``up to people, say hello and ask what they're doing and where they're from.''
So we meet the Algerian Muslim woman who warns Katakis that France and the United States are ``funding our own assasins''; the young Chinese farmer who teaches Katakis how to plant rice (``If these people had more education and opportunity, I would not like to compete with them,'' Katakis wrote two decades ago of a country we are now competing with and borrowing from), or an old Cuban fisherman who tells Katakis the way to learn to fish is ``Practice. The pleasure is in the doing you know.''
Katakis first began taking photographs to inform his writing, then became acclaimed for his pictures. The British Library is now collecting both his writing and photography _ some of which can be seen at www.mkatakis.org. Palin has called Katakis's pictures ``peerless.''
Someone asked me the other day if Katakis is a liberal. I said, ``Not exactly.'' For instance, on genocide in the Sudan while reflecting on the tragedy of Sierra Leone, he wrote in ``Traveller'':
``I want to strike out at the aggressors and return them to the dust. I am always for the victim and unlike many of my fellow liberals I have no rationalizations to offer as to why the aggressor should not be stopped or killed . . . the world should keep its promise now and immediately start killing the janjaweed . . . if that is what it takes. I feel that is much preferrable to another woman being raped or another child being murdered . . . ''
Sometimes Katakis can be off base, as in the piece ``I Don't Like Texas.'' He seemed surprised when I told him of a number of gracious and giving Texans I had gotten to know.
But Texas can handle the slight, and minor complaints don't detract from the book's passion or truthful observations of a world seriously out of kilter because of injustice done to so many.
That includes Katakis and Kris Hardin's guide and friend Sahr. Did he survive the Sierra Leone bloodletting? Katakis still doesn't know, may never know, so he is likely to continue having that dream.
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...