Haiti Reflections, Part 1: The Pictures We Take

February 25, 2014

In brainstorming topics for this blog, I came up with an idea for a series of posts I’ll title “Haiti Reflections”.  I’ve got a potential list of four or five entries already—I’ll number them—but they won’t necessarily be right after another.

I’ll likely have other posts between them. As titled, these will be my reflections of Haiti as I’m learning about the culture and what it’s like to live here as a foreigner. I hope these posts will give you a glimpse into Haiti while also providing an opportunity to learn, be challenged, and have our minds opened to go deeper into a country and culture that so many of us find ourselves connected to in some way—either by serving here ourselves or having friends and family who travel or live here.So let’s get started…

Recently I was up in the mountains visiting a community I got to know last year when working on a latrine project. I love this mountain village. It’s a neat adventure to cross the riverbed and start the hike up the big mountain you see beyond you. When my mom visited in October, we made the journey to this village and spent the night in the home of one of the families there. That was the last time I had been there until two weeks ago. It was great to reconnect with the families there, see how the kids have grown, and see that they are still enjoying their latrines!

I have two cameras. A simple point and shoot camera that I take with me nearly everywhere. It’s small and easy to slip into my bag in case I just need to get a shot of this or that. I also have an SLR with a few lenses and I use that when I’m in the mood to carry it around or have a special need for the use of a better camera. I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures. People tell me I have some skill. I wish I had more skill. But I’m happy to play around with it, enjoy it as a hobby, and take some good shots from time to time that I can use to help tell the story of Haiti.

I love the Haitian homes you encounter in the mountains. They often have more character, color, and charm than the concrete homes you find in the cities. They provide a great backdrop, from a photographer’s viewpoint, for the family gathered together in the “lakou” (yard), socializing and passing time while they are cooking, sorting beans, or studying a school lesson. I like how the organization Lakou Lape describes it… “The Creole translation for Lakou translates closely to a safe space that offers a sense of community, belonging and understanding.” The houses themselves are made of a variety of materials, typically wood—and often wood from coconut trees which shows off the curved texture of each log as it connects to the next. Some are a mix of wood, metal, and concrete. I enjoy portrait shots with someone sitting or standing in front of the rough textures that seem to tell a story of their own.

And it was one of these portrait shots I was interested in capturing as I was talking to this sweet elderly woman that I see most every time I’m in this village. She was standing in the doorway chatting with me about her ailments and as I’m listening I’m thinking about how the light is highlighting the lines on her face and the wooden doorway is an appropriate frame for this shot and the ragged clothing she has on is another accessory that captures the reality of this moment. I ask her if I can take her photo and she immediately says, “Oh no, I must change into nicer clothing and put something on my head because I’ve done nothing with my hair.” As much as I selfishly wanted the photo as I already saw it in my mind, I owed this woman the dignity of capturing her as she felt most comfortable being photographed. Clean, made up, and with proper clothes on.

With a photograph, we have the power to give someone dignity or take it away. I can’t say that I’ve never taken a photograph without asking permission and that I’ve always captured people in the best light—or in the light that they would most prefer. But I have realized more and more that the stories we tell are often defined by the pictures we take. And we owe it to the people we’re photographing, to take pictures they want taken to tell the stories they want told. This woman may live in an impoverished situation in a difficult and remote village, but she is a woman of dignity just like my own grandmothers were. They took pride in their appearance and made their best effort to look their best for company, and certainly for photographs. In her old age and with many ailments, the first thing my sweet Haitian friend did was ask if I wanted a chair. Hospitality and kindness were on her mind. Meanwhile, I have to be careful to not let my mind quickly jump to, “Wow, this would make a great photo and really capture ‘Haitian village life.'”

I told her I would pass back by and allow her time to change. When I returned, she had covered her head with a scarf and put on a beautiful, clean, blue and white polka-dot dress. Shoulders back, she posed for the photo and of course enjoyed seeing it on the screen and laughing with joy at her own image. Perhaps this photo had a different effect than the first image I saw, though who’s to say which one is more true? The photo of a woman not expecting visitors so she saw no need to make herself presentable that day? Or the photo of a social, dignified woman who would never think of having her picture taken without a quick glance in the mirror?

The photos we take are important. They tell a story. Stories that really aren’t ours to tell, and yet sometimes we are given that special privilege. Let’s treat that privilege as we should treat any privilege… with care.

Haiti Reflections

This online article provides further insight on the subject of Ethics and Photography.

 

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