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Courtney Fitzpatrick's Maji Moto records a terrible African drought

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When Courtney Fitzpatrick went to Kenya to do field work with the Amboseli Baboon Research Project in 2009, she planned to blog about it so friends and family could share her experience. She never expected that her writing, as well as the photographs she took, would be what kept her sane during an unprecedented drought that lasted more than a year.

"Watching things die, slowly, is horrible," Fitzpatrick says, sitting outside a Durham cafe last week. "Every day was an opportunity to reflect on suffering. And I had to get it out or it was going to drive me insane. I think it actually might have driven me a little bit insane, in hindsight."

Now Fitzpatrick's work is collected into a powerful limited-edition book, Maji Moto: Dispatches From a Drought, published by Dave Wofford's Horse & Buggy Press. It includes 10 short essays she wrote, along with more than 40 of her color images, as well as introductions by noted biologists Harry Greene and Donna Haraway.

Currently in the final throes of a doctoral dissertation in evolutionary biology at Duke, Fitzpatrick did her undergraduate work in studio art at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her prose is as precise and poetic as her photographic eye.

A small show of Fitzpatrick's photographs is on display through the end of June at Horse & Buggy's space in the Bull City Arts Collaborative (BCAC), where her book is also available for purchase. The images are neither easy to view nor easy to avert one's gaze from: A lion struggles in the mire of a desiccated watering hole, its front legs transformed into crutches too weakened by exhaustion to raise its body's weight. Harsh angular light shines pink through an infant baboon's nearly transparent ear, a fragile speck of color in a plain reduced to dust. Clouds swell in the gigantic skies but but yield no rain.

With wildebeests, zebras, giraffes and Maasai cattle dropping dead around her, the field work that Fitzpatrick was there to do gave way to the necessity of dealing with the devastation she was witnessing. Attention and description overcame objective observation. If she couldn't understand the drought, she could at least put that into words.

"What is the news?" she writes in an entry dated July 21, 2009. "Maasai from all over Kenya are calling in to say that their cattle are dying. Moonyoi tells me, 'after ng'ombe, watu.' After cattle, people. These cattle are Maasai currency, but they are also canaries in the mineshaft. I find Nkii alone in the kitchen, head bowed with one hand on the radio, and I know he is praying for rain. Moonyoi suspects that the drought is God's punishment for Kenya's political misdeeds and wonders if it rains in the U.S."

Whether or not divine retribution is a factor, experts feel that the drought's terrible toll on humans, animals and the landscape was largely unnecessary. Despite the lack of rain, better planning from local and international authorities would have made the dry spell much more tolerable. But hindsight is small consolation to the people who are suffering.

"Midway through 2009 I realized that this was important work, this writing," Fitzpatrick recalls. "I still posted them as blog posts but I started thinking about them as something more. And people responded to them. I needed the people I loved to know what was going on so that I could come back and have anything to talk about."

Once she returned stateside in June 2010, she tried to find an appropriate outlet for the Maji Moto work. By winter, her collaboration with Horse & Buggy was under way. Wofford's dedication to his craft perfectly matches Fitzpatrick's attentiveness.

His flawless letterpress printing, impeccable book design and perceptive layout make reading Maji Moto as close to knowing Fitzpatrick's experience as a book can get. Essays and images have an oblique relationship. Captions are grouped in the back of the book to stay out of the way of the images. Turning pages is like the passing of days.

One feels this book keenly in one's hands. Printed on heavier, watercolor-like paper that carries the imprint of the letterpress, the images convey an atmospheric appearance that more traditional coated paper would gloss over. A specialty printer in Florida rendered the images, which Wofford painstakingly optimized, using a high-end ink jet process called giclée printing. Giclée allows for more color gradation and saturation than regular four-color offset printing. There's a slight grain to the image that gives a depth to the vistas and a bulk to the clouds that offset would flatten out in its sharp resolution.

Fitzpatrick's collaboration with Wofford is much more than a publishing relationship. They talked at length about her 17 months in Kenya before work on the book even began. (His ability to get inside an artist's project has distinguished the Horse & Buggy imprint through 15 books in its 16 years, the last six of which have been spent in the BCAC space.)

Maji Moto includes a hand-printed bookmark and a frameable photographic print in a translucent envelope inside the back cover. Giclée and letterpress broadsides of select images and essay excerpts are also available.

Far from being a precious fine-art piece, this book honors Fitzpatrick's experience without romanticizing it, which was a crucial tension for her.

"Taking those photographs felt like an act of reverence," she says.

"It sounds cliché but that's what artists do. They make a record of what happens. Without artists, we really have an impoverished record of the global experience."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Pictures from a dry place."

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