I got the call just two and a half weeks before we left. Seth Johnson rang me up and told me he couldn’t get me off his mind. He was going to Haiti with a friend, and thought I might want to join them. I told him I’d think about it.
Haiti is not someplace I have ever wanted to go. In fact, it’s somewhere that I actively did not want to go. It’s always sounded miserable, in short: hot, poor, backward, spiritually dark, miserable. Add to that a devastating earthquake, and you have the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere in shambles.
Nonetheless, as I considered it, I knew I had to go. Shannon agreed with me, and so I bought my tickets, and started packing and preparing. There is little information available on how to prepare to travel and photograph in Haiti. Even the Multnomah County Library System, one of the finest in the nation, had no travel guides for Haiti. Zero. And even if they did, I thought, how would I prepare for a country devastated by an earthquake? Thankfully, one of my photographer friends, Aisha, had just returned from photographing there (view her midwife/maternity photos here), and we talked at some length about her experience.
To make preparation a little more difficult, I wasn’t even sure what my assignment was in Haiti. I just knew that I was supposed to go, and trusted I would find out why as I went. So I packed my bags, my camera gear, my Malaria pills and electrolyte packets and Power Bars, and I went.
I met up with Seth Johnson (my travel and documentary partner from Transitions Global, with whom I created a documentary on child sex slavery in Cambodia in 2008) and Cory Grimm (of Mission Haiti) in Miami. We then met up with a youth group that flew in from Bellingham, Washington, headed to a hotel for a short night’s sleep, and then boarded a morning flight for Port-au-Prince.
While on the airplane, I sat next to an American gentleman who was working in Haiti, with Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian organization started by Franklin Graham. He told me of the work he was overseeing, building hundreds of small temporary homes for locals, places for Haitians to live while their concrete homes in the city were being rebuilt. As I looked around the plane, I could see numerous people in similar lines of work, talking and preparing for their time on the ground in Haiti. It was truly a beautiful sight, to see a 737 full of people headed over to help.
Landing in Port-au-Prince, we discovered that portions of the airport had been damaged in the quake; as a result the immigration/customs/baggage claim was held in a repurposed warehouse. Occasionally cooled by rattling fans, it took us a couple of hours to make our way through the checkpoints and find all our luggage. Then we were herded through the crowds and on to our school bus for the five hour drive ahead.
Port-au-Prince was not leveled completely by the earthquake. In fact, much of the city looked fine. This was deceptive, the American gentleman on the airplane had explained. Many buildings were left standing, but were so damaged that they can not be used. While much of the city looks fine, it is uninhabitable. As a result, our drive through the clogged streets was marked by the common site of blue and white tarp/tent encampments, piles of rubble, buildings with visible cracks and broken windows, and scores of Haitians getting on with their lives.
We were not headed to the city, but to a village on the southern coast, outside of Les Cayes, named Ti Riviere. We drove through tropical rainstorms, fording rivers where bridges were damaged (prior to the earthquake), passing through bustling towns, past crumbled buildings, small markets, rice farms, down to the ocean, and into the jungle.
Petite Rivier is a village (more, in my opinion, a rural area, rather than a concentrated village) of a few thousand people, stretching from the dirty ocean shoreline up into the steep green mountains. Our home for the week was here, situated at the crossroads between the road and the path that leads up into the hills. Here we found the orphanage compound of Mission Haiti.
Over the course of my time there, I was very impressed with Mission Haiti. The founder, Pam, was there while we were, and that lady knows how to get things done. Probably the same age as me, she and her husband and kids have been working in Haiti for 15 years. Their work now includes the orphanage, 3 schools up in the hills that they’ve built and run, and approximately 1500 children who are sponsored by foreigners so they can have a square meal each day, and an education. I was stunned to discover that it costs only $50 a year to send a child to school and feed them a decent meal each day.
Some of these children are now at the age where they are finishing up their schooling. That’s where Cory Grimm comes in. His passion is to help these students pursue their dreams and passions. And this, it seemed, was also where I came in. I had the privilege of helping Cory research and build bridges with local schools and universities for these students, and also to spend time with these kids, talking with and encouraging them.
Over the course of my time in Ti Rivier, I enjoyed walking and talking with Emanuel, Patruko, Elisee, Junior, and others, in their burgeoning English, and my extremely limited French. Elisee loves to write, especially poetry, so we spent time reading his poetry and talking about teaching. Patruko creates stunning 3-dimensional sculpted paintings, and we were able to talk about art and craft and business. We also were able to make him (with the astute help of Pam’s dad) a miter box, so he can begin to cut his own frames. Patruko also is a leader among the local youth, and I developed a real respect for him and his gentle wisdom.
Cory is also a natural, gentle leader, and over the course of our time together, I developed a real respect for him and his humble service of the youth in Ti Rivier. He will be moving with his family to the orphanage in the fall, and his full-time presence will be a real blessing to the students there. I was honored to be able to serve with him in his preparations for full-time work in the area.
Each evening, the local youth, along with the American youth and adults, would gather for a couple of hours at the orphanage. There’d be singing and games, and a time for conversation and teaching. Cory and I ended up speaking with the youth over the course of the week on the topic of pursuing their dreams and passions, whether big or small; about having hope and a future. This in turn led to good conversations with the kids during the week, and seemed to be of real encouragement to them.
We also spent a couple of days hiking up in the mountains, visiting with various families there, checking in with them and their children. This felt at once odd (a few white guys checking in on families in a foreign culture and language?) and fascinating (I was there to support and photograph, after all, which I did a lot of). At the very least, the sometimes grueling hikes in the steep, green, eroding mountains, in both torrential rains and burning sunshine, were beautiful hikes, and great times of conversation with our local friends and interaction with the local culture.
This was the first time in my travels that I’ve been in the home of someone who lived on the top of a mountain ridge, a 2 hour walk along a little path to the nearest road. And this was not an isolated house, but a little village of homes, amongst a panoramic view of little houses dotting the mountainside, where people scrape together a living off the hardscrabble hillside. The families there were happy to see us (or at least, entertained by our appearing), and fed us fresh coconut and asked us to take their photos, which I was happy to do.
Seth’s work in Haiti, in addition to helping Cory, was to research the restavek situation as part of his work in the fight against human trafficking. In Haitian culture, it is not uncommon for a family to give away one of its children to another family of better means. This child then becomes, in effect, their indentured servant, performing the household chores of cooking and cleaning, in exchange for food and, perhaps, an education. The way in which these restavek children are treated varies from household to household, where they may be abused and treated like dirt, or be cared like family. It’s a complicated situation, and one in which it is difficult to make a blanket moral judgment. If left with their birth family, the child may starve; if given away, they may be severely abused. One of our hikes involved checking in on a child who, it is suspected, is restavek. Unfortunately, the child was not at the house when we called, or so we were told.
My time in both Nicaragua and Haiti have given me occasion to ponder poverty more deeply than I ever have in my life. While this is a topic larger than I will address here, I was nonetheless struck by a story Pam related to me. She described a young lady in her early 20s who is unable to perform even simple math, or remember how to spell, because as a child she was so malnourished that her brain was unable to properly develop. This is so common, Pam went on to say, that many adults are really children in their level of intelligence and maturity. This contributes to these adults not caring for and nurturing their own children, who are often left to fend for themselves, both physically and psychologically. And so the circle of poverty and ignorance continues.
It is easy for me to feel deadened by the enormity of the need in the world. I am learning to find solace in the fact that I do do what I can, that I am obedient to care for the poor as much as I am able, and that carrying the entire weight of the wretchedness of the world is not my job. My job is to do what I am given to do, to do it well and faithfully, and to enjoy doing it. That’s everybody’s job, really. If only everyone would do this, we’d all be in a much better spot as a world.
I’m encouraged by the work of people like Pam and her family. She saw the need in Haiti 15 years ago, and jumped in and did something about it. Fifteen years later, she can point to people like Elisee and his poetry and desire to teach, or Patrouko and his leadership among the youth of the community, or any number of other children who were raised in the orphanage or the local schools. She knows that these kids will give something back to their community, and will be a part of rebuilding Haiti, from the ground up.
I’m privileged to have the opportunity to work alongside people like Pam and Cory and Seth, Elisee and Patrouko. It humbles me on a regular basis to see such servant-hearted people working around the world, from that airplane that brought us into Port-au-Prince, to all over Haiti, to all over the world, making the world a better place. It’s my privilege to be among them, and to be able to tell their stories, through photographs and words, to the rest of the world. It’s my hope that you will join us.
See more of our Travel and Editorial photography at www.fritzphotographic.com.