January 24, 2011
Haiti Photo/Tent Cities/Ethics/Help?

Two days ago, Ivens, the principle at the school at Child Hope in Port-au-Prince, was kind enough to take me to two of the tent cities that have sprung up since the earthquake.   Ivens who has lived his whole life in Port-au-Prince is one of the most respected people in the neighborhood, an ambassador of sorts, with everyone knowing him or knowing of him.  When he speaks, people listen, his voice firm and wise, yet filled with compassion.  Ivens has dedicated his life to the education of Haiti’s children, working at a school before coming to be the principle for the Child Hope International elementary school.  He one day hopes to open up his own school.  

As we drove through neighborhoods I would have never seen without him, he explained to me, “Everyone knows me and they listen to me.  I don’t know why, but I really like it.”  His respect has given him the opportunity and responsibility to try to make a positive difference.  Passing over dirt and rocky roads, Iven’s pointed out different people to me, pointing to one man who waved with a smile, “that man there, he is bad, he causes trouble”, which promoted my question, “what if I were here alone?”  Since being here, I have not encountered even a bad glare from someone while waking down the street, let alone any violence.  But he explained, “In this neighborhood it depends, but most likely someone would break your camera.  Since I am with you though they don’t mind.  They know that I have provided for the community so they know you are here with me with good intentions”.   

Some Haitians are sick of foreigners pointing there cameras at them, and understandably so.  Since the earthquake, hordes of journalist come and go and in many cases portray the story in Haiti as one sided, only focused on writing about the country in bad light.    For commentary on this, you should read this satire piece on “How to Write About Haiti”: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/crossover-dreams/a-guide-for-american-jour_b_656689.html

I asked Ivens if all of the tent “cities” were formed after the earthquake and he told me that they were.   Because the people who live in these cities have no idea when they may be able to move out and back into homes, these communities are constantly evolving with a long-term mindset.  Some people don’t know if they will ever move out.  One cluster of tents I visited had its own “church”, and I say “church”, because it was created with a bunch tarps, wood poles, and rope.  The church also served as a school, with the green canvas being used as a chalk board.

The whole ethical conflict surrounding photography and whether it serves the well being of the people and what could be considered and sometimes feels like exploitation has only added to my churning mind about questions of, “how can one help?”  And help in a way that actually HELPS (and not hurts) by promoting long-term grown and development.   

While I know my intentions are good, in Haiti more so than any other place I have attempted to be more aware of these questions and always ask people first if I can take their photo.  It’s hard though because most of the time my photographs are editorial, I will just see a beautiful person or scene that would make for a good photograph no matter where I was in the world.  There is no motive behind it other than that.  Just the other day I came across an older woman sitting on the steps outside her home in perfect light.  She was stunning, her white and black braided hair hanging just below her top brown hat.  It did not matter to me where she was from, what conditions she lived in, etc.  To show any of that was not the point of the photograph.  But she didn’t want me to take a portrait of her, and this was something I had to respect.  And I understand the concerns too.  Will I turn around and sell the photographs to a newspaper?  Am I exploiting her?  Am I stealing her pride by photographing her in conditions she is not proud of?  Am I capturing her soul on camera and therefore stealing it, as some believe in Haiti?  These are all questions that need to be asked.   While in some places I will sometimes simply go into “beautiful photo mode” and just snap away, but especially in Haiti, given the past and present situation, I have an extremely hard time doing this.

But there I am, walking through pathways between metal and tarp homes, peoples lives which are so different from my own, my cameras worth more than the annual salaries of everyone living there dangling from my arms…even though I am with Ivens which gives me credibility, people still look at me with curious eyes, speaking to each other in Haitian Creole (which I obviously cannot understand)… It is somewhat uncomfortable. 

While occasionally children have clearly been instructed to not allow themselves to be photographed, the majority are always eager for me to take their photo though.   No matter where I am, I spend a lot of time everywhere I go bending down and showing the kids the photos, their smiling and laughing faces showing off their amazement of seeing themselves on the screen.  When I photograph one child, there are usually bunches that follow and say to me “photo, photo, please”, after I snap a few, tugging on my camera to see how it turned out.

While walking around with Ivens I asked him what the people in these tent cities need.  He began to speak impulsively saying, “they need oil for cooking, they need food with protein in it, they need pots and pans to cook their food in, they need …….” before I interrupted politely to raise the issue of the importance of helping, but in a way that does not create and then perpetuate dependency.  He understands better than I do and quickly changed his tone, explaining how people who come to volunteer, with big hearts and intentions, often times want to go and hand out clothing and food to people.  While these things are needed, its important that they are received in a way that does not hinder development and create a cycle of free hand outs like so many of the organizations unfortunately do.  Often times there is a clear lack of awareness between the need to transition from emergency aid relief and long-term development.  And as often the case, especially in Haiti, many say that the organization between the government, the relief NGO’s and development NGO’s has been very poor.  The tent cities have in ways become international welfare communities, in some cases with people living there who have standing homes but move into the tent cities to receive free aid.   In some cases, the way in which aid is distributed also does not even reach the people it is intended for because people with for example, take a 100 pound bag of rice that was donated, and then turn around and sell it.

I asked Ivens what the solution was, even if on a small scale within his own community.  He explained to me that he will often go to the tent cities and talk to the people about how they can improve their lives, providing them with information and awareness, while never promising anything in return.  He sometimes will say, “If you do this I will come and help you”, but he makes sure to never say what it is he will bring.  He is trying to educate people and make the incentive to do things for betterment of their community, to improve their lives, not because of what they will get.

  In one example he educated the people on the need to keep their neighborhood clean and not just throw trash on the ground.  When he came back, they had collected all of the trash and so he bought for them a garbage can.  Now, at least he claims, the people throw all of the trash into the garbage can.  Eventually he says, “the people will begin doing what I educate them on even if I do not bring them back anything”. 

Whether it comes from the government, which needs to play the biggest role, or from NGO’s and the international community, the people need help that will allow them to help themselves.  They need jobs, they need confidence, they need information, they need opportunities that will allow them help rebuild their lives, and most importantly, the children need education.  Most of the children in the tent cities and throughout Haiti do not even go to school because they cannot afford it (in Haiti no education is free).  The African proverb that explains it best  says,   “If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day.  If you teach him how to fish, he will eat for a lifetime”. 

The questions surrounding, “when does helping actually hurt?” and “how do you balance the need for helping people immediately with the daily needs of life while also promoting sustainable growth and preventing dependency?” are questions I am still in the process of understanding and finding answers too.  It is an extremely complex topic.

In terms of what I can do to help, as I drove back home I spoke to Ivens about the idea of going there soon and creating a photograph clinic for the kids.  I have also run the idea by Susette, an amazing woman who runs Child Hope, along with her husband Bill, and entire family, and she liked the ideas well. My idea is that I would bring disposable cameras from home and after teaching the children some basics give them certain assignments.  I would then develop the photos and have them printed.  I even though about how it would be cool to have a “gallery” at the end of the clinic.   He was very positive about the idea, as it would teach the children a skill set as well as give them something to be proud and confident of.  I am in the process of thinking the idea through but let me know if you have any ideas or can help in any way. 

Here are a few photographs I took with Ivens in the tent cities:

Ivens sits in the tent city while I interviewed him and children and a curious man look on.  The principle of the school Child Hope International sponsors, he is one of the most respected men in the neighborhood. 

Inside a tent home.

Interesting, huh?


Inside the kitchen.

Hands dirty from cooking with coal..

She sells candy, cookies, and gum out of her home.

One of the nicer tented homes.

This lady asked me to take this photo.  I am hoping to print a lot of the photos I took and bring back with me next time I go.

Tent city church.

The church also serves as a school, with the canvas walls being used as chalk boards.

  1. darrenornitzphotos posted this