Friday, January 23, 2009

On top of the world

It was nearly dusk in the valley as we checked our harnesses. Everything secure, I jumped and grabbed hold of the bottom rung of the metal ladder and slowly pulled myself up until I could get my feet on it.

Click... Click... I latched two carabiners is far above my head as the ropes would reach. The other ends were attached - hopefully securely - to my harness. Up the ladder until the carabiners were by my feet. One off and attached above me, then the other. Click... Click... It was slow going but as I was going up 150 feet it was one of those better safe than sorry situations. When I got about 40 feet up I looked down and saw Jimmie jump up and start the climb - much faster than I was going. No wonder he waited a while. It was also around there that I reached the treeline and the valley opened up around me. That was nothing like from the top. When we got to the top of the water tower, with no rails, in the middle of the Artibonite valley it was absolutely breathtaking. And just in time for the sunset.


We sat up there, on top of the world talking and watching the tiny people coming and going until it was completely dark and the stars had come out. I went up two more times - in the middle of the day with Mareile and before sunrise with my dad.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

l'Escale

Children slowly creep around me, staring. Mothers look at me while nursing. Teens stop cooking, bathing, whatever they were doing. Some continue, purposely ignoring me as I wander around with my large camera, far more conspicuous than I wish I were. I want to know these people, understand them - so that I may share a real understanding with others... This is one of those times when I realize the impossibility of my self-assigned task.

In order to speak about l'Escale, I must first explain the man that brought me there, Jimmie. It's difficult to explain just exactly who Jimmie is or what he's about, but he gets Haiti in a way few other non-Haitians I've met do. He runs all the behind-the-scenes stuff at HAS. Maintenance, supplies, transportation, security - that's just the beginning. It's safe to say that he's both one of the most important people there and likely one of the least talked about - but not least appreciated - everyone knows who he is and has great respect and appreciation for his work.

Jimmie and I hit it off immediately. We just clicked - had a lot of similar ideas about Haiti, the people, what helps and works and what doesn't, and we are both adventurous and always looking for something new. Because of that I gained a friend for life and that's valuable no matter where in the world you are. The side benefit was that it gave me access to things I wouldn't have had otherwise. One example is l'Escale. Jimmie was going there to test and work on the water system there and invited me to join him.

L'Escale means "The staircase". L'Escale is a staircase. For most it only goes down. L'Escale is a gated village - in the U.S. this is often a good thing. In Haiti it can be as well, but in this case it is the opposite. The people that live in l'Escale are outcasts. L'Escale is an attempt to isolate Tuburculosis to stop it from spreading. Anyone in this town either has TB or has a family member with it - families stick together in Haiti with a dedication we don't see in the U.S.

So what did it feel like? It felt like a town, with good people cooking, washing, living. Aside from the fact that they were slightly more surprised by my presence than other places (everyone is surprised to see me with my big camera), there was really no difference. Even though they are isolated from the rest of society with a disease that's been largely eradicated from societies that can afford the necessary antibiotics, if no one had told me I was walking into a TB camp I wouldn't have known.

And then there was her. Something special about her - so beautiful, pure, simple. She was cooking in the kitchen, an outdoor pavilion probably powered by charcoal. I'm guessing she was 15. She was beautiful and looked into my camera with a power I rarely see. Not angry or mean, not seductive, not even confident - just looking. piercing. direct. unafraid. and beautiful.

That afternoon I printed off a bunch of the photos with the picturemate printer Epson gave me and I walked back to l'Escale. It wasn't a short walk and probably not particularly safe around sunset, but I felt it was important for me to do it this way. It may seem a little backwards to those that haven't been in a dangerous country, but my viewpoint is that by showing them that I trust them and I am not afraid I am actually in a much better position than someone that is shaking in their boots. So far it's worked out all right.

The ride

It's pitch dark out. The only lights to be seen are the stars, which are more numerous than imaginable. And one small yellow beam of light a few feet in front of me. The wind is cool in my face. The sound a steady hum. I hang onto the motorcycle Joel is driving, wondering if I'm more excited or scared. Neither emotion wins, they're about equal. It's a beautiful and exciting way to travel and it feels like we are the only people in the world at that moment. But I'm also putting a lot of trust in my friend. He's driving very fast and we have no helmets or jackets on. A goat wandering into the road is far from uncommon and something as simple as that could kill us. We're on our way back from a club where we were celebrating Joel's birthday. We're not drunk but we have been drinking. At least we're the only ones on the road. It's only about 11pm but in Haiti that's the middle of the night and everyone is asleep. I explain to Joel that in New York that's when the clubs open. All I can do is look up at the stars, so dense in the sky that it doesn't look real. I only need to focus on one part of the sky for a few moments to see a falling star. This, I think, is one of the most memorable rides of my life.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Welcome

I have created this blog to document and share my experiences and photographs of Haiti. I have just returned from my second trip there and am preparing to return for an extended stay, probably a year. This first post will give you some background information and resources to refer to as I move forward. If you are not familiar with my photography you can start by visiting my website sander-martijn.com

To begin with I would like to thank my parents Carl and Marianne Milks, for without them none of this would be possible. They have been extremely supportive of my photography career and have helped me in times of need with financial support, equipment and most importantly their faith in my chosen career. More importantly they introduced me to Haiti and funded my first two trips there. My mother had been to Haiti several times with my father joining her on one of them. The trips varied from building a school to working at Hopital Albert Schweitzer Haiti (HAS), about which you will hear much more. Every trip they remarked how I could do beautiful work there, until a year ago when my mother invited me to join her. I agreed, not knowing at the time that it would change my life and direction. At this point I would like to point out that my mother has had a blog about Haiti for some time now and it would be helpful to read some of her thoughts about Haiti to gain some insight from another point of view. Her blog can be found at mariannekmilks.blogspot.com.

My first trip was a powerful eye opener. In November of 2007 my mother invited me to join her on her trip. Excited to see and capture something new I jumped at the opportunity. As I am an artist and not a journalist, I wanted to document what I saw rather than what I expected or hoped to see. Therefore I did little research on Haiti or what others had done there before my trip. I knew some things from my mother and read some of the history of Haiti so I wasn't going in blind but left it at that. What I discovered was a country of beautiful, proud, strong people. With next to nothing to call their own and facing a long history of political turmoil, deforestation and erosion, disease and a lack of education the people refuse to give up. It is not uncommon to meet someone without work that works for free with the hopes of it eventually turning into a paid position. What we hear in the news and from many aid organizations is pity, sadness, poverty, starvation, AIDS, hopelessness. While all of these things are true and I understand that pity is one way to encourage people to help in whatever way they can, it is not the feeling one gets when in this beautiful country. I left with a series of portraits and supporting material and the hope to use this to change people's perception of Haitian people. For while pity can be effective, so can pride and the understanding that these people need a helping hand so that they can help themselves, that if we give them the tools they need they will step up and continue the journey on their own.

It was my second trip that really changed me. In December I returned to Haiti with both of my parents. They were again working at HAS and I had two goals. One was to continue the portrait work I did on my first trip and the second was to document the work that is being done at HAS in order to help the Mellon Foundation continue their work there. In preparation for this trip I recalled how excited people were when I showed them their photo on the digital screen and thought it would be great if I could give them something permanent. I went to Photo Expo to look at battery operated portable printers. The battery option is important since there are many places and times where electricity is not available. When I spoke to Caroline Zubieta at the Epson booth about their printers I explained what I wanted to use it for. What I did not realize is that she works in Public Relations for Epson. She offered that Epson could give me a printer with all the things I need to do this project and do a story on my work when I return. This story will be coming out soon and I will post a link to it here when it is. I will write more about my trip in future posts, but for now I will simply say that while my first trip was more as an observer, on this trip I truly fell in love with Haiti and the people and made many lifelong friends. I also realized that in order to really capture Haiti in the way I want to I need to spend much more time there.

Because of these realizations, I am currently working on selling my business in New York and finding organizations I can work with. Hopefully by March I can return to Haiti where I intend to spend a year doing humanitarian work and photography throughout the country.