In Spring of 2011, my sister and a team of medical professionals partook in relief efforts in Haiti. Just months after the earthquake, the team’s focus to aid in the health of the Haitian people was of precedence and an impact was made on all accounts. When she returned, she had countless stories to share, my favorite part being the pictures, each intermittently scattered throughout her week abroad. I was drawn to the candid, often “quick-grab” approach of her shots and suggested that if she ever had the opportunity to return, I would love to tag along. This October, I did exactly that.
When asked about my experience, I’m silent. At best, I stumble, not out of disrespect or an unwillingness to talk about it, but a complete inability to find the right words. It’s not a one- or two-word answer but a conversation. Even as I write this, my mind wanders erratically to particular stories, instances, faces, scenes, and thoughts that choosing any one to start with might perhaps make my experience seem chaotic. Maybe it was. But should you stop here, and know that my experience was sobering, fulfilling, and wildly influential.
For seven days, two nurse practitioners, nurses, a doctor, chiropractor, journalist, and I provided medical relief in Port-Au-Prince. It should be known that I have no medical background whatsoever. It should also be known that such an uncharacteristic detail was something not frowned upon. The other team members, who all had volunteered their time and expertise before [some for ten years or longer], welcomed me into the group not only as a photographer, but more importantly, as a person hoping to make a difference. When we landed in Port-au-Prince, all titles, histories, and convictions dissipated. We were a team of eight people there to help.
Each day, we set out to a chosen church, village, or site and set up a mobile clinic: a registration table, three or four provider stations, and a pharmacy. Several times, we had the tools and space for dental and minor surgical sections. I mostly worked in registration beside hired translators who helped record names, ages, blood pressures, weight, and heart rates on brown paper bags of each person to be seen that day. I met infants, children, teenagers, adults, and even the elderly. Each person who sat across from me complained of a multitude of ailments, anything from stomach pain and itchy skin to joint pain and trouble breathing. I jotted each condition down and directed patients to the providers who took over and finished the examination, prescribing various medications to help relieve or cure pain. When the line of patients waiting to see the providers stalled, I began to photograph.
I was often seen mingling with the children. Not only did they love having their picture taken, wrestling one another to fit as many of them into a single frame, but seeing the result on a screen immediately after was both magical and hilarious. I couldn’t help but think this was the first time they had seen themselves in this way but I was not naïve to the probable slew of photographers who had passed through before me and did the exact same thing. I photographed smiles, laughter, some quizzical expressions, but mostly joyous, happy faces. I even befriended a boy who mimicked the action of putting the camera to my face with a toilet paper roll and like a game of peek-a-boo, we exchanged pictures.
When not in the clinics, I typically photographed out of the passenger side window or through the cage enclosure atop the bed of our host’s truck. I fought to set an accurate focus on what I was shooting amongst the rutted roads and aggressive driving habits of Haiti. The time to react was minimal and jarring but the results were raw, un-staged, and deliberate.
I traveled to Haiti with an open mind, anticipating exactly what previous media coverage had represented. In a country still recovering from a traumatic earthquake, I expected wreckage, displaced citizens, and a poverty stricken culture. I saw that. I was volunteering to be a part of medical relief and expected to see the sick and weak. I saw them, too. But what I didn’t expect to see was the beauty, pride, and gratitude of a people so connected and rooted to a rich history of beliefs, landscape, and customs. I could never put the camera down. But even amid my trigger happiness and desire to document everything, I had many moments of simply just observing. I quickly learned one week is not enough to accurately portray Haiti in words or photos.
I’ve been home for just over a week now, having spent the last several days editing photos, collecting my thoughts, and wanting to share the experience. Revisiting images and writing about my time in Haiti has been emotional yet finding the words to tie the context, emotion, and stories of the images together is becoming less straining. Of the over 2,500 images I made, more than half are portraits. I connected with people so unlike me and that was absolutely riveting. But a second glance proves that a connection only existed because these people are exactly like me.
To all those who called, emailed, texted, messaged, Snapchatted, or sat and listened to my stories…thank you. For those who gave their time, money, and confidence to my Indiegogo campaign over the summer…this would not have been possible without you. This was truly a life changing experience and I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to go. It won’t be long until you receive an email from me with print news.
Hopefully by now, you’ve all seen the images and read columnist Steve Gilbert’s wonderful introspective in The Keene Sentinel. My wish is to continue to share the photographs and illustrate a hopeful perspective of Haiti – one portrait at a time.
The original story appeared on Nick’s blog, and you can find that right here.
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