The Danger of a Single Image (Photography Part 2/6)

In October 2009, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie took the stage at a TED Talk event to describe the danger of a single story.  Her speech has since been viewed over a million times on the TED channel.

As photography takes the place of pen and paper for many travelers, the danger of a single story is now synonymous with the danger of a single image, and Chimamanda Adichie’s message is as relevant as ever.

For Haiti it is easy to come up with a list of words, reinforced over and over again by a barrage of images, that play out any number of variations on the same theme: Poverty, disaster, destruction, displacement, chaos, instability, upheaval…

No matter which word you choose, if it is the photo you choose to take, that photo becomes part of a collection that contributes to painting Haiti in a single color, to telling her story with a single image.

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Sometimes it is difficult to recognize our experience with a culture or people as being two-dimensional, and we fall victim to the power of a single story without ever realizing it. When we are continually fed the same story (in all of its variations) it becomes what we expect and what we look to realize in our interactions.

An influential professor once shared a story with me from early on in his travels:

Shortly after landing he was greeted by a young woman who was to be the group’s guide for the duration of the trip.  Looking around him at the bustling streets and the generally diminished socioeconomic condition of the neighborhood, he lifted his camera to take a picture; he wanted an image to bring back and share with his colleagues who were curious about the place he was visiting.  The young woman stopped immediately, turned to look at him and said “Oh.  You’re one of those people.”

Disconcerted by the generalization he responded, “What people?”

She continued: “The people who come to my country and take pictures of my people the way you think we are.”

He told me that she had been right, he had gone into that trip with an image already in mind and that was the image he saw everywhere when he looked around.

Her influence changed his perspective; by pointing out things that didn’t play into the narrative of the single story she was able to help him break away from it.

Talking about her own experiences growing up, Chimamanda Adichie said this too:

“All of these stories make me who I am, but to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my whole experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me… The problem with the single story is that they create stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

It will be a long time before Haiti sheds the images of poverty and destruction that have become its “single story” for the world, but the photos we choose to take can play a role in the way Haiti is understood by the members of our own organizations, as well as our family and friends.

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After listening to Chimamanda Adichie’s talk, I have a plan for the next time I visit Haiti.  I am not confident in my ability to separate completely from the single story, but this is an opportunity, to sit down with my host and talk about what images she thinks are most important to capture, if any at all.  I hope that I might be surprised by the plurality of stories I can uncover and share.

Chimamanda Adichie’s full talk is available below.

Photography in Haiti: The Stories We Tell (Photography Part 1/6)

After our talk with Elizabeth Turnbull and our discussion on storytelling in Haiti, I started to wonder, how do we tell stories? And then, how do I tell stories? It turned into a pretty slippery slope, so bear with me.

As my siblings and I grew up we filled close to a dozen photo albums.  Maybe it was because my mother was a photo fanatic, but more and more I’ve come to realize how well documented my life has been.  So many of my stories are told through photographs.

I realize that not everyone’s experience will be the same as mine, but it seems safe to say that the new American norm is to tell our stories with the aid of visual media.  It’s a way of sharing our lives and experiences with friends and family who might not be there to witness every major moment first hand.

More than that: We take pictures of everything.  We share with everyone.

I’ve seen places in the world that I will probably never personally visit through the lens of a friend’s camera, and it’s really pretty amazing.  (See below)

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I’ve shared my experiences with friends, and my mom, by taking pictures when I travel.  They’ve shared with me.  They get to see what I’ve seen, where I’ve been, what I’ve done and through this act of sharing I’ve learned a lot, they’ve learned a lot too.  One of the most important things that I’ve learned is this: It is easier to take pictures in most European countries than it is to document our experiences in countries like Haiti.

There’s the old adage, “A picture’s worth a thousand words”, but sometimes a thousand words cannot even begin to contextualize a picture; how much of the story have you really told?


As our culture relies increasingly upon the power of pictures to share our stories (and the stories of those people whose paths we cross) a certain mindfulness is imperative.  What story, exactly, are we sharing? Is it the same story the viewer will see, (i.e. will they get ‘the whole picture’)? Is it even our story to share? What kind of change can it bring about? What’s our motivation behind sharing it? Does it lift people up or perpetuate harmful stereotypes? (We’re just beginning to skim the surface here…)

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I’m not suggesting that Americans are the only ones who rely upon photography as a means for telling stories, nor are we the only ones who document difficult situations (look anywhere on the web and you’ll find thousands of examples of stories being told in this way all over the world by people from every imaginable background) but I do think that pictures monopolize our new culture of storytelling and as volunteers (mostly from comparatively privileged backgrounds) we need to be aware of how our pictures portray the places we’ve come to love, and what effects they have on the people we care about.

So what’s the point?

Well, this post is a launching point.   It’s the starting line before we plunge into a series of discussions on all things photography in Haiti.  I’d like to put it out there right away: we don’t have all of the answers, but as curators of a community for socially engaged people looking to move through the world in the most socially responsible, compassionate way possible, I think this is a topic that is well worth our attention.

So please hang in there with us, we’ve got a lot of stories to tell.

Interview with Children’s Author Elizabeth Turnbull

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What inspired to you to begin the Janjak & Freda series?

I noticed that there aren’t many children’s books about Haiti, and there are even fewer that are accessible to Haitian children in Kreyol. Most books published are in French, and I really wanted children in Haiti to have the opportunity to read a book about people just like them in their own language.

Additionally, I noticed that most of the children’s books about Haiti that are available in the US deal with very heavy subjects––they have a social agenda as much as a literary one. That can be very good for many reasons, but I believe that children in the US need to understand that children in Haiti aren’t all that different from them––at least not in the ways that really matter.

Do Janjak & Freda remind you of any of the friends you had growing up?

They remind me of all the friends I had growing up. While they certainly have plenty of their own personality, Janjak and Freda were born out of the memories I have from rural Haiti.

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Can you explain why you felt that it was so important to create a bilingual English/Haitian Creole children’s series?

One of my favorite things about books is the power they have to transport us to different places, introduce us to different people, and help us form a connection that moves beyond borders or language or tradition.

I wanted Haitian children and American children to both be able to pick up the same book and connect to the same characters and go on the same adventure. I have a vision in my head of a Haitian child and an American child sitting side by side reading the book together. Even if they can’t speak to one another, they can share a common experience. I’d like to think that’s happening somewhere.

Was the illustrator ever able to travel to Haiti?

The illustrator, Mark Jones, lives and works in the UK—that means travel to Haiti was going to be very costly and not practical for the scope of the project. But it was essential to me that the characters in the book look authentically Haitian because I want Haitian children to feel a connection to the story. Mark had lived and worked in different parts of the world, so he was practiced in drawing people of many different cultures. He’s a wonderfully talented artist. I inundated him with photos of Haitians and Haitian children, and that that gave him a feel for how to draw the characters. I was so pleased with how the characters turned out—especially Janjak and Freda!

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What resources/research did he do to recreate the liveliness and vibrancy of the Iron Market?

Mark and I shared a Pinterest board for easy collaboration. I posted a ton of images to help him out and he did some research on his own, too. In the end, the hardest part, he told me, was all the fruit. It took him many hours to get the fruit, vegetables, and other small details to look right for the reader.

What was your goal when you began writing?  Did that change as you progressed?

For years my mother and I had plotted about me writing a bilingual children’s book, and we’d make up a million different stories as we’d take walks around her neighborhood. Eventually, the concept of Janjak and Freda was born. I wanted to have two Haitian children––a boy and a girl––travel around Haiti and introduce children to different places as well as different concepts.

As I progressed, I realized that I had too much to say. So I had to cut out a lot. And there’s still a lot of text! But all in all, I’d like to think that I was able to stay true to the original intent, even if some of the details changed along the way.

What’s next for Janjak & Freda?

Janjak and Freda go to the ocean on their next adventure. This story will be a way to introduce children to the beaches and ocean life of Haiti while also presenting the very real issue of pollution. I think Janjak and Freda are going to help clean up a beach and they’re going to make some interesting friends along the way! The book is still being written, but it will be published in 2015.

Can you tell us a little bit about your other book, Bonnwit Kabrit?

Bonnwit Kabrit is a book very dear to my heart! It was born out of the writing process for Janjak and Freda. One night when I finished the runaway goat scene, I had the word Kabrit stuck in my head. And then I began to make up words that would rhyme with Kabrit. Soon, I had a bedtime rhyme written.

The idea is very similar to Goodnight Moon. Children are introduced to scenes around the country and then one by one they say “bonnwit” (goodnight) to them. The book is in English but there are Kreyol words sprinkled throughout. It’s a sweet bedtime book, and I wrote it with my godson in mind. They day I got to read it to him was a Very Good Day.

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Bonus! Anything else that you’d really like to share about this series, your childhood in Haiti, writing or other things you’ve learned?

I owe a big thank you to Haiti Hub for the Janjak and Freda series. I was having a really hard time coming up with the names of the main characters, and Carlo was kind enough to share a list of names with me. Once I read through them, I knew right way that we had to have a Janjak and a Freda. So in some way, this story belongs to Haiti Hub and your members, too. Mesi anpil!

The team at HaitiHub was so grateful to have had the opportunity to sit down with Elizabeth to learn more about her books.  All of her books are available on Amazon, they are also available for bulk order purchase through Lightmessages Publishing, please message  A portion of the proceeds from Janjak & Freda go to sponsor children in Haiti.

Krik… Krak! Storytelling in Haitian Creole

Krik…. Krak!

The above call and response is deeply rooted in Haitian culture, and it’s a sign that a story or riddle is about to be told.

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Janjak ak Freda manje kenep yo nan Mache an Fè. Courtesy of Light Messages Publishing.

Janjak ak Freda manje kenep nan Mache an Fè.
Courtesy of Light Messages Publishing.

Stories play an important role in how we perceive the world, and coming from the United States we might take for granted how many stories are written for us, in our native language, and with our education in mind.

While a strong oral tradition continues in Haiti, a tradition that represents an irreplaceable source of knowledge and a highly necessary mechanism for preserving culture, as Haiti continues to push for higher literacy rates there is no doubt that books written for Haitian children in their native Kreyòl are in short supply.

With that, we are excited to announce that next week we will be posting our interview with Children’s Author: Elizabeth Turnbull.

Elizabeth is the author of the Janjak & Freda series, a bilingual story written in both Haitian Creole and English. She is also the author of other children’s books like Bonnwit Kabrit.

Please join us next week to see what Elizabeth has to say about Janjak & Freda, her inspiration behind the story and why writing a Creole-English bilingual book was so important to her.

Getting the Job Done

One of the biggest cultural adjustments that most Americans experience when visiting Haiti is schedule.  “We’ll leave at 2” or “We’ll meet at 5” or “Church starts at 8” don’t mean quite the same thing in Haiti as they do in the U.S.

Haitian culture tends to treat time with a greater sense of fluidity, and the people there have a  different perspective on what takes priority. In my experience, Haitian people generally make time to talk, to catch up, and to check in with friends, family and neighbors.  These exchanges are part of the day, instead of being an interruption to a packed schedule.  Community events are also unlikely to begin as scheduled, and may be indefinitely delayed by weather.

The morning we went to Catholic Mass we waited for nearly an hour once arriving at the church at the “designated” time.  While we were not alone in the sanctuary there were many who had decided to wait out the rain before making the trek in their Sunday best

Skies are clearing above Legliz Katolik in Borgne, Haiti. The morning we went to Catholic Mass we waited for nearly an hour once arriving at the church at the “designated” time. While we were not alone in the sanctuary there were many who had decided to wait out the rain before making the trek in their Sunday best.

So how is your project going to work in Haiti? After all of the preparation that went into your trip to Haiti, it might be tempting to focus on getting “the task” done at any cost and “down time” or “wait time” can feel like a huge waste of time.  It might seem like you’re not doing what you came here to do if afternoon plans get washed out by a rainstorm, or the morning doesn’t start until much later than anticipated because your guide/translator/host arrived anreta (late).

Here’s the thing though, at any given moment, odds are there is probably someone around to talk to, someone happy and eager to engage in a conversation. My experience in Haiti changed completely when I stopped fretting over the minute hand on my watch, and boldly went into the realm of unplanned conversation.  Sometimes an impromptu exchange can be one of the best things to come out of a trip.

So yes, plan ahead, be organized, and be ready to do the work you came to do, but don’t let “getting the job done” keep you from taking full advantage of less obvious opportunities.  Above all, you are there to connect with people, and that’s not something you can necessarily schedule.

Vin manje avèk nou – An invitation to enjoy the best of Haiti

Like many in Haiti, Martin cares for his family one job at a time.  We hired him to be our guide for the 10 days we were spending in Haiti.

He showed us around the area, introducing us to friends and passersby, stepped in if communication got rocky, and generally saw to our safety and well being for the duration of our stay.

He was a patient (impromptu) tutor, quiet and soft-spoken but easy to talk to.  He had an impeccable talent for garnering meaning from our jumbled cocktail of Kreyòl-Angle and he quickly became a bit of a celebrity among our students. Somewhere, someone was most certainly asking “Kote Martin??

Martin akonpaye nou toupatou. Nan foto a, l'ap mennen nou nan mache a. [Martin accompanied us everywhere.  In this photo, he's leading us to the market place]

Martin akonpaye nou toupatou. Nan foto a, l’ap mennen nou nan mache a. [Martin accompanied us everywhere. In this photo, he's leading us to the market place]

The day we went into the community market, Martin returned to the group with 3 coconuts and a handful of other treats and began passing them around.  The excitement of our students overwhelmed the market place (How many blans does it take to open a coconut? Answer: 0, we were quickly relieved of them and a man with a machete cracked them open for us.)

Martin had spent his own money buying us treats.

During our class that night we spent a long time discussing what it meant to receive gifts from our friends in the community.  While we were there they served us their best food, put us up in the best lodging and, as Martin had demonstrated, acted with overwhelming generosity.

Was it right to accept these things from a community where we’d seen others struggling to meet their everyday needs?

I’ve come to a few conclusions (that don’t necessarily generate a conclusive answer):

1.  There is so much not right in Haiti, we hear a lot about it, everywhere, always.  Many times, that is all that outsiders know of the country.

2.  There is so much GOOD in Haiti, there is good in the people there, and there is good in the natural beauty of the place and in the relationships we build.

3.  By offering us their best, our friends and hosts are sharing with us what they love most about their country.  Hopefully we leave with a little bit better understanding of the things that make Haiti beautiful.

4.  Refusing to accept a gift is (inadvertently) casting judgment upon their situation.  They know what they can afford to give, and they do it with joy.

5.  Refusing to accept a gift jeopardizes the friendship because it shakes the foundations of that fundamental equality I talked about in The Santa Claus Complex (If all the giving is one sided, you unintentionally create a hierarchy)

6.  I hope throughout life, wherever I go, I am able to embody the generosity that I’ve seen in Haiti.

What you don’t know is bigger than you

I believe that Haitian Creole is an integral part of Haiti’s strength.

This majority language in Haiti creates a sense of solidarity among its speakers, and through proverb preserves the resilience of a people that have fought for generations without ever succumbing.

Tout sa ou pa konnen pi gran pase w’ ” (see title), was a bit of a puzzle for me when I first heard it.  I couldn’t account for the way it was used; it wasn’t meant to inspire fear or a sense of ominous foreboding, but to recognize that you can’t know it all, and therefore cannot always control the outcome of any given situation (which for me, automatically inspires a certain sense of fear and foreboding!)

For Haiti, life has never been about predicting the future; life there is tumultuous, it’s unpredictable, and frequently unstable, so it becomes about continuously rising with dignity and grace to embrace each new day as it comes.

I think that exploring proverb can help those of us on the “outside” understand a little bit better the heart of Haiti.

Despite the oppressive character of injustice and poverty that plague so many, Haitian people are repeatedly described as overwhelmingly hopeful.

While many proverbs touch on life’s hardships, the more I learn about Haiti, her language and her culture, the more convinced I am that Haitian strength is preserved and conveyed (in part) through the language’s rich variety of proverbs.  These range from humorous to poetic, and encompass a wide range of riddle-like complexities; together, they represent an incredibly woven tapestry of idiom, cultural knowledge, humor and resilience.

"Piti piti zwazo fè nich li" [Little by little the bird builds its nest] This man is a fisherman and was using the space of an abandoned Duvalier mansion in Northern Haiti to build a net.  A simple, repetitive task for his skilled hands, but we stood by transfixed by how easily he manipulated the materials and the complexity of the pattern.

“Piti piti zwazo fè nich li” [Little by little the bird builds its nest]
This man is a fisherman and was using the space of an abandoned Duvalier mansion in Northern Haiti to build a net. A simple, repetitive task for his skilled hands, but we stood by transfixed by how easily he manipulated the materials and the complexity of the pattern.

More Haitian Creole Proverbs:

Chita pa bay”
[Sitting doesn’t give]
In other words: Sitting around/doing nothing doesn’t get you anywhere.

“Dèyè mòn, gen mòn.
[Behind mountains, there are mountains]
Anyone who’s been to Haiti knows the inspiration behind this proverb, what it means though is that to move past one sorrow or problem will only bring you face to face with another.  It can also take on the sense of “If it’s not one thing, it’s another”.

“Kouri lapli, tonbe larivyè.
[Running from the rain, you fall in the river]
In avoiding one thing, we fall into something even bigger.

“Kreyon Bondye pa gen gòm.
[God’s pencil doesn’t have an eraser]
In other words: God doesn’t make mistakes. (I think I’ve heard this one here in the U.S. before too?)

Pale franse pa di lespri pou sa.
[Speaking French doesn’t mean intelligence]
In other words: Fancy speech doesn’t mean you’re smart, or that your ideas are more valuable for that matter.