I went to Haiti for 10 days a month ago. The opportunity to travel there arose when I learned about Project Istwa, a New York-based non-profit that organizes photography workshops for Haitian children. Istwa means "story" in English, or "historia" in Spanish. Seemed like a good match for me since I have lingered on the idea of storytelling for some time now. What are the stories that children tell when they hold the camera? When they control the gaze and framing about their lives, what appears?
In our world of selfies and 10-year-olds with iPhones, a program that allows children to take pictures may seem unnecessary. But in the community that we visited, photography was a welcome and novel opportunity. The children we spent time with live in the outskirts of Gonaives, a coastal town in the Northwestern part of the country. Their community is inland, providing them with safety from the floods that tropical storms bring to this region, but also placing them far from the town center, off the grid. No electricity, no running water or sewage system, no Internet, spotty cell-phone coverage, and certainly no 1-hour photo developing. In this environment, the chance to take pictures and keep the 4x6 and 8x10 prints was greatly appreciated.
Their photos captured the desolate beauty of this place. The blue sky, the dry bush, their brightly colored concrete homes. The images portrayed the important places in their community - the water pump,the park, the basketball court, and shop - but most of their pictures were of people: Mom, Dad, Friends, Teachers, Cousins, Grandmother, Sister, Brother, Aunt, Uncle, and the old lady who lives down the road. Each face, stance, and special outfit telling a story of its own.
So what I can I tell you about Haiti? What did I learn? What can I share? Honestly, not much. I know little about Haitian history and culture. I don't speak Creole. My time was spent primarily in one small pocket of the country, a micro glance which makes it impossible for me to construct any claims about the country. I saw and experienced all kinds of things that were hard for me to really understand or process given my lack of background or context about this place. I can tell you this - Haiti is stunning to look at and deliciously warm. The people are busy and patient. I felt very safe and welcome.
What the experience came down to for me was about 20 people. Twenty new characters in my story. The other volunteers, folks from the US and Haiti who worked alongside me in organizing the workshop. Their memories, their humor, their problem-solving skills, their reflections on the path we traveled together. The children in the workshop. Not all 32 who participated in the project, but the half dozen or so who somehow ended up by my side and inside my imagination. The ones who shared their photos with me, who sat with me in comfortable silences, who played tic-tac-toe over and over again, who looked at me with a smile and a nod that suggested that they had seen me. Getting to know them on their own and then seeing them on the last day at the photo exhibit surrounded by their friends and family was truly a privilege. Our children, our future.