Thursday, March 5, 2009
Eske mwen ka fe foto ou? Proud faces of Haiti - my attempt to explain what I am doing, why I am going.
I open my eyes and see a commotion of color—deep Orange sunsets—striking blue dresses—green, gold, purple..but most difficult to capture, the unmistakable glow of pride. I see the legacy of the only successful slave rebellion in history, the descendents of people strong enough to stand up to Napolean's army with farm tools - and win. Welcome to Haiti.
The name alone strikes fear in some, pity in others. Major media networks repeat the same quotes and statistics whenever there is any news from this tiny caribbean nation. Crime, AIDS, deforestation, disease, famine, hurricanes and political instability—is that really what Haiti is about? Having been there twice to photograph what I see, I don't believe so.
Haiti has become the forgotten child of the western hemisphere. The poorest nation in the western hemisphere ranks 146th of 177 in the United Nations Human Development Index. They have the highest number of HIV positive people in the west. Running water and electricity are scarce and there is no waste management to speak of. Malaria and dysentary create high mortality levels. The country is 99% deforested due to the charcoal industry resulting in widespread erosion and multiplying the damage that hurricanes cause. These facts are all realities for many. I am not attempting to counter them or make light of them; I am simply hoping to open your eyes to something more.
As the landing site of Christopher Columbus, Haiti is the legacy of the west. Haitians are descendents of the only successful slave rebellion in history, people which after defeating a Napoleonic army established the first recognized black republic. Since that time the country has been mired in conflict with one dictator after another taking power, many times supported by rich nations.
When the slaves revolted they were against all odds. Uneducated and without rights they had nothing they could call their own. They had no sense of property as they themselves were considered. Their weapons were machetes and field tools against a foe that had guns, cannons and other modern weaponry at their disposal. But the one thing that these people had that could not be taken away was their pride. They used their pride to obtain an astonsihing victory and to establish a free state.
This pride remains in the Hatiain people and has helped them survive a series of dictatorships, never losing hope for their true freedom and shows through in every person you encounter. They retain hope where there is none, they work even when there is no pay. These are who the people of Haiti are - not people to be afraid of and not people to look down upon but people to respect.
The first time I was asked to visit Haiti to take photographs was in November 2007. I chose to arrive with as few preconceived ideas as possible. I read up on the history and recent events but ended my research there. I wanted to avoid falling into the trap of going to a place with an idea of what I would find and inadvertently seeking that out. The one thing I was acutely aware of was that safety was an issue as people consistently warned me to be careful, including people of Hatian descent. What I discovered was that even such well intended warnings can create preconceived notions. I found those warnings to be misleading. What I found were people who were happy to meet me and help in any way possible. I found myself sitting with a fifteen year old boy over candlelight late into the evening learning creole one day and riding on a motorbike with three others the next. Complete strangers invited me into their house and offered me their only bottle of coke. What I saw was people that lacked the concept of selfishness because everyone shared whatever they had.
My time in Haiti was limited and mostly spent in the fertile Artibonite region. I created a series of portraits, accompanied by landscapes for context that portray the strength and beauty of these people under circumstances that would render most helpless. Unposed and unaltered, these portraits require neither as all that is needed shines through their entire personality.
On my second trip, in December 2008, I experienced a greater variety. I spent much of my time photographing Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, but also spent some time in Port au Prince and Jacmel. More importantly, I made many friends. Some of them Haitians, some ex-pats working with various organizations, they provided me with greater insight and exposed me to a far deeper experience of what daily life is like. This newfound support system gave me the confidence that I could live there and continue my project, and that I am on the right path. Furthermore, it showed me that I have only scratched the surface of what Haiti is and that I must do this if I am to claim that my work is in any way representative of Haiti.
My plan is to return to Haiti with more time and with the freedom to travel throughout Haiti to capture the soul of the people of this beautiful and unique country. This work will widen people's understanding of Hatians. With increased awareness of who these people are individuals and organizations will be more willing to invest in this nation that could so highly benefit from the opportunities that the international environment can provide.
Given clean water, waste management and political stability Haiti could flourish into a self sufficient and prosporous nation, but understanding and acceptance must come first. I have found that the people are ready for this. Now it is time for the international community to step forward and help them obtain the peace and prosperity they have worked for over their entire history.
At the end of this year I will have the photographs and writing to create a book and a traveling exhibit. When in Haiti, I see proud strong people determined to change their future. My goal is to show this to the world, change their view through my vision.