Who’s telling whose story? When Haiti speaks for herself. (Photography part 4/6)

In our last post, we touched briefly on adjusting our focus so that we might see Haiti the way Haitians see it. I’d like to introduce you to an organization called FotoKonbit to show you just what I’m talking about.

FotoKonbit is a non-profit organization founded in 2010 by a group of Haitian (and one American) photographers, artists and educators. Working with students in Camp Perrin, Labadie, Cap Haitien and Zoranje, their goal is to give students the opportunity to tell their stories, and the stories of their communities, through photography.

With a career spanning over 30 years in Haiti, award-winning photographer Maggie Steber once said that photography should be, “the ability of a people to describe themselves”. Maggie Steber, along with renowned Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat and a host of other talented and driven individuals have served as advisors on the FotoKonbit team.

The result of the collective work of FotoKonbit’s mentors and students is a vibrant collection and a powerful statement for Haitian autonomy in storytelling. With the constantly changing scenery of these communities’ diverse landscapes and an intimate look at the day-to-day, FotoKonbit’s students have accomplished something extraordinary.

Their photos capture the reality of life within their unique communities with honesty, insight and dignity.

Why are they successful in an arena where we so often fail? Simply put, this is their story. Who better to tell it than them?

Marie Arago, the Executive Director of FotoKonbit, has generously given our blog permission to share the following images with you from their Cap Haitian collection. You can view the full online gallery on the FotoKonbit website.

Boys in front of Sans Souci, King Henri Christophe's Palace at the base of La Citadèlle. Photo taken by: Myrmara Prophète, age 14.  FotoKonbit, Cap Haitien. http://fotokonbit.org/#/image-galleries/cap-haitian/okap_suresenes_0018

Boys in front of Sans Souci, King Henri Christophe’s Palace at the base of La Citadèlle.
Photo taken by: Myrmara Prophète, age 14. FotoKonbit, Cap Haitien.
Used with Permission of FotoKonbit.

Photo by: Joachim Allande, age 14. FotoKonbit, Cap Haitien.

Photo by: Joachim Allande, age 14.
FotoKonbit, Cap Haitien.  Used with Permission of FotoKonbit.

The talent of their students has not gone unnoticed; Myrmara Prophète and Joachim Allande are among a handful of FotoKonbit students recently selected as part of a team photographing life in Haiti for an upcoming story in National Geographic. The story should run sometime in the Summer of 2015.

FotoKonbit’s work to empower Haitians with the tools and resources to tell their own stories through photography has led to exhibitions in Port-au-Prince, Miami, Surenes, France, New Jersey and Houston as well as a permanent exhibition wall at the Port-au-Prince airport.

By sharing their photos around the world, these students are part of an ongoing effort to change the narrative about Haiti.  Check out the rest of their work, and see if it doesn’t have an impact on the way you see the country you’ve come to love.

And next time someone asks you, “What is it like in Haiti?” I would strongly encourage you to direct them to FotoKonbit’s gallery of images. They won’t be disappointed.

Next Thursday, we’re looking forward to welcoming Executive Director of FotoKonbit, Marie Arago, for an interview with HaitiHub to learn more about her experience with FotoKonbit and to talk with her about her perspective on the role that photography plays in Haiti.

Selling poverty (Photography Part 3/6)

In our previous post, we talked about the danger of a single image and how painting a people with a single brush stroke  can dehumanize and alienate them.  What happens when our only story of Haiti is one of poverty?

But then again, what about the poverty?  Doesn’t that story need to be told too? (To my friends, my family, my donors???

They haven’t seen what I’ve seen, they don’t know the need.)

Here’s what I think: Images of poverty are an easy sell.

Life can be hard and it can be ugly, but life in Haiti is not only those things.  We need to be selective about the images we share as part of the story we tell about Haiti because what we see creates the framework for our larger perspective.

Tara Livesay, who has been living and working with her family in Haiti for more than 8 years, once shared the following story on her personal blog www.livesayhaiti.com:

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[Tara writes about this with absolute honesty and brilliant revelation, click here to see her full post!]

Photos are powerful because we tend to remember images.  And here’s the thing: pictures of poverty only reinforce an expectation of poverty.  Sharing photos of misery and hardship with your organization, friends, family and donors inspires very little real hope because it relies primarily on pity to get them to invest fiscally or emotionally in Haiti, and that’s not what the country needs.

We need to make a change in the way we ask people to invest in Haiti, one that doesn’t limit their perception of Haiti to a single image of poverty.

What if our view of Haiti (based on the pictures we took) was more in line with the way Haitians see themselves?

How would we see Haiti if we didn’t start every conversation with the word “poor”?  If the first image that came to mind wasn’t always refuse floating down flooded, crowded streets?  It’s there, we know that already, Haitian citizens know that already, but they also know that there is so much more to their country and maybe it’s time we started turning our cameras towards that.

Check out the following instagram accounts of two women working to change the way outsiders view Haiti:

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 books@lightmessages.com.  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.