Many photographers have stories about the hassles they've encountered while trying to get the right picture.

Few involve the threat of imprisonment and getting hit with a dead monkey.

But that's what happened when Magdalena Kernan took her camera with her on a three-month visit to Bioko Island, an island off the the west coast of Africa that's part of Equatorial Guinea where, the Ocean City resident says, photographic journalism is not only discouraged, it's illegal.

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"I read up on somethings, I was like, 'Wow, this is crazy,'" she said. "People said, 'Don't bring a camera, it might be confiscated.' The people I was going to work for said they would get me a permit - but I never got one."

But Kernan did get her pictures, which are now on view at the Arts Garage in Atlantic City in the show "Illegal Pictures from Bioko Island."

The pictures are colorful portrayals of a beautiful country and mostly smiling people who don't seem the least bit concerned that the person taking their photo is also breaking the law.

"It's some place I will probably never go to again in my life, but it was so cool to go there. It's not a very touristy place. I just had to document it," she said.

The story of Kernan's trip is as much as testament to her resourcefulness as it is to her commitment as a photographer.

The Stockton graduate - she's been accepted into law school at Rutgers, but has deferred starting the program for a year - initially intended to spend three months on Bioko Island doing an internship with a nonprofit organization. But, after arriving on the island, the arrangement turned out different than she had expected. So, she started looking for work.

"It was the craziest thing I'd ever seen. I was like, 'What am I doing here?'"

Luckily, there was a United Nations office nearby. The 23-year-old, just a few weeks out of college with a political science degree, found herself working as a program coordinator for U.N. activities on the island.

"I would sit in on the meetings in Spanish and take notes and write up a meeting report to keep everyone in the loop. It was really good for me to keep up my Spanish," she said. Part of her duties included monitoring funding received and how it was spent - an important job in a country known for its corruption, she said.

"It was really cool, but it was a lot of pressure. It was awesome," she said. "I didn't expect to have something of that weight."

As part of her job, Kernan took photographs of U.N. activities, but she knew her work with the international agency didn't give her carte blanche to use her camera.

"The month I got there, a British photographer was kicked out of the country - he was thrown in prison and then kicked out," she said.

Even knowing the risks, Kernan was determined to take photos. She hid her camera under her clothes as she walked through the cities, but thought she could talk herself out of any trouble she might get into if caught.

"I just didn't have a concept of fear when I started. I figured I could finagle my way out of everything," she said. "I would go into these back ghetto villages. I would just walk through there and take pictures. I just kind of played it off that I was, like, this innocent little girl. I was super silly, and it worked. It was really cool."

Kernan was stopped once, but did manage to talk her way out of trouble. But the authorities weren't her only worries.

Not all people on the island wanted their pictures taken.

"People aren't comfortable with technology. They are taught that pictures are bad, so the people are very cautious," she said.

One memorable scrape came when Kernan wandered into an market and started taking pictures.

"In the middle of the market there is an illegal meat trade, where they are selling all different kinds of animals. It's illegal, but the people who are buying the meat are government officials," she said.

Kernan started taking pictures, until a man who was selling monkey meat saw her. In the picture she took at that moment, it's clear the man is not happy.

"He started hitting me with this monkey," she said. "It's different there, so different there - kind of like everyman for himself."

Kernan came away from the island with a real sense of the disparate worlds that occupy the space. Rich in oil, Bioko attracts Americans and others in the international community, who live in their own areas, frequent their own restaurants, and have little to do with most of the island's population, which lives in poverty, she said.

But Kernan also came away with an appreciation of the beauty of the tropical island's jungles, wildlife and beaches.

One memorable event happened when Kernan went camping on a beach and discovered she'd set up her tent atop a nest of leatherback sea turtles. The turtles hatched the evening she was there, pouring into the tent and forcing Kernan and her companions to help get the young creatures to the water.

"We were scooping them up and getting them out of the tent and then using our flashlights to try to lead them to the water," she said.

Kernan left Bioko Island with an offer of a job from the U.N. if she decides to return, but that's unlikely to happen, she said.

Back home, she's resumed a busy schedule of shooting local weddings and is preparing for a trip to Bolivia in January, where she has been hired to document a nonprofit yoga program that seeks to help abused women.

Kernan, who earlier this year had a photo exhibit in Atlantic City of her work documenting the city's homeless, is casting about for another project she can tackle before entering law school.

She hopes to eventually combine her work as a photographer and lawyer to document human rights issues.

"I never really considered myself a photographer, but it's just completely blossomed," she said. "It's incredible."

Contact Steven V. Cronin:


If You Go

"Illegal Pictures from Bioko Island: Photographs by Magdalena Kernan" exhibit held through Sept. 30 at the The Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton College, 2200 Fairmount Ave., Atlantic City. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. An opening reception will be held

6 p.m. Sept. 12. Call 609-626-3805 or visit


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