Earlier this year we flew to Port Au Prince Airport in Haiti with 30 other volunteers and Haven staff for Haven’s annual volunteer programme. Haven is an Irish NGO dedicated to alleviating poverty and to improving the living conditions of communities in Haiti. They’ve been one of our charity’s of choice for the last 10 years (half of all proceeds from my
photography book "Snap Dragons" goes to The Haven Partnership) and earlier this year they asked me to photo document the Haitian community as well as Haven’s 2017 volunteer programme which was to renovate a school for 200 children that was very badly damaged in Hurricane Mathew Oct 2016
On the bus trip out of Port Au Prince to our accommodation we got to see much of the country’s infrastructural devastation, pollution, overpopulation and absolute poverty. We’d expected to see this devastation but it was relentless; street after street buildings were half demolished and surprisingly even 6 months after Hurricane Mathew, piles of rubble dotted the streets and pathways. Mounds of plastic bottles and other packaging waste filled wasteland between the buildings and rivers of muck and what I presume was sewage flowed underfoot the thousands of Haitians working and walking through the streets.
I grew up in the 80’s and so was very familiar with and had been effected by the images of starving, half clothed, helpless Ethiopians that had been broadcast during the 1985 Live Aid Concert. I’d prepared myself for the effect of seeing that now, in person. But the Haitians were nothing like that! To our amazement; men, women and children were getting on with their business oblivious it seemed to the debris and dirt around them. They chatted and laughed together while they busied themselves selling from their handmade stalls or briskly walking to their destination, often not wasting a trip by also carrying huge barrels of water or sacks of food on their heads. Their clothes and wares were cheap and a little worn looking but they were immaculate and quite striking looking both in looks and in stature. In fact, both Naomi and I were struck by their fortitude. They didn’t stand with their shoulders lowered or eyes to the ground but upright, looking straight ahead and in fact they had no problem looking you straight in the eye; not with a look of pleading or desperation but with something quite different, almost challenging. It was a look that made me feel it wasn’t appropriate for me to take pictures of them or their living conditions
As we made our way out of the city the grey landscape of rubble and waste transformed into a carpet of lush green grass and trees. Fields of crops were much more plentiful than I’d expected but the livestock, the little we did see had hardly any meat on the bone. Buildings became fewer. Most of the Haitians living in the countryside live in shed-like houses with corrugated roofs (see thumbnails 26 and 27) but we also saw some much larger homes which were hidden behind tall walls and gates. They hadn’t escaped the wrath of the earthquake of 2010 or Hurricane of 2016 but there were signs of rebuilding although most still weren’t finished. We found out later that’s because the Haitians build as much of their house as they can afford; often just the 1st floor and then add to them as they get money. Even if they have enough to finish their house many don’t because they have to pay a tax on completion of the build.
We arrived at our lodgings in Christianville (a mission that schools over 1,200 Haitian children) which was fortressed behind tall gates and fencing. Our accommodation although basic was much more comfortable than we’d expected, we even had an electric fan!.
Haiti has a high crime rate so it’s unwise to travel without security. "Badger" was my companion on all excursions. He’s an Irish man and has been living in Haiti for the past 7 years with his Haitian wife and children. He knows the places to go and more importantly the places to avoid.
My week, was divided between photographing the progression of the school renovations (see thumbnails 1-18) and visiting local towns, to photograph the local Haitians that the Haven charity have assisted (see thumbnails 19-35). Naomi spent the week with the other volunteers, renovating the school.
A photographer friend of mine told me that that many Haitians don’t like getting their photos taken because they believe that a photograph steals their soul (Voodooism is widely practiced in Haiti). So, I made sure to always ask before I took a picture. He loaned me a Polaroid camera and told me I could “give them back their souls” by giving them a picture of themselves. It was something he’d done on one of his visits to Haiti and found it worked very well. Some older Haitians refused to have their picture taken but the Polaroids amused the children who were happy for the trade (see thumbnail 13)
I found with the adults that asking if I could take their photo took a lot of spontaneity away from their expression as they were more conscious of me taking their picture than just being themselves. Badger also told me that most Haitian’s only have their picture taken for formal documentation so they tend towards posing very solemnly. To get over this, before I took the photograph I wanted, I photographed them as Badger engaged in conversation with them. So by the time I took their portrait they were used to me shooting them. This worked to some extent and I knew that the longer I spent shooting them the more relaxed they would be in my company
Naomi and I are very grateful for and humbled by our week in Haiti. We know that we only experienced a glimpse of the challenges the Haitian people face but even in our short time there we were overwhelmed by their resilience and fortitude. We were so impressed that we’ve researched a lot about their history since returning home and our respect for them has increased tenfold. We would encourage anyone that has an interest in joining Haven’s volunteer programme to research Haiti’s history so you get a true appreciation of how deserved they are of aid. You can also find out more about Haven’s volunteer programme here https://www.havenpartnership.com/blog/category/volunteer-programme/ What we like about the Haven Partnership is that they are a charity that enables the Haitians to proactively help themsevles; their premise is one of giving the Haitian people a "hand up" rather than just a "hand out"
Posted By: David Cantwell and Naomi Dunleavy