March 5th, 2013
Los Angeles, California
Unfortunately, I must say that Waiting for Haiti is on hold for the indefinite future.
When the project first began over three years ago, I was willing and able to fund the majority of each trip. Along the way, many generous supporters emerged to help lighten the load, and I hope that each of you can feel good about your decision to help me complete the two essays which received the majority of your donations: The Michels and Once Loved. It has become clear to me, though, that self-funding would not be a viable, long-term solution. Eventually I’d run out of money, and then what? With that in mind, I began exploring other options.
Since April of 2011, Waiting for Haiti has been rejected by every direct funding opportunity for which it was considered. Some were public opportunities and others private. This has weighed on me quite heavily. I’ve wondered if these rejections were a result of the quality of my photographs, the writing, or if my style was simply unappealing. I also considered the possibility that these foundations may have seen Waiting for Haiti as just another project about Haiti — a subject which is now often viewed as cliché.
After a few months of contemplation, I decided it was time to not only put Waiting for Haiti on hold, but to also begin steering myself away from freelance photography in general. Honestly, I’m not that good at it. I may be good at taking pictures, but definitely not the entrepreneurial aspects of it. It seems as though most young photographers share the same fantasy I had: to not only work for yourself and make a living, but to develop a respectable reputation as well. This “dream” no longer fits with who I am.
I’ve never been a good salesman, businessman, or fundraiser. Moreover, the majority of folks in the surprisingly small photography community would find my opinions (should I express them bluntly) to be contradictory to their own. I never bought into the idea that photography can change the world, or even the future of a small island country. I do however believe in the value of sharing thoughtful opinions which have been formed by personal experience. The stories within Waiting for Haiti are not about my life, but are clearly a reflection of who I am.
In order for a photographer to influence any real change, he or she should be willing and able to provide direct assistance when needed. On a case-by-case basis, I have rejected the code of ethics that demands a photojournalist avoid contributing to the outcome of events. I have and will continue to directly help when the opportunity arises. Another flaw in the code of ethics involves avoiding stereotypes. It sounds fair but, in reality, political correctness has essentially neutered quality journalism. When it comes to the media, journalists (and editors) constantly manipulate public opinion by cherry picking which stories to cover in order to trade negative stereotypes for positive ones, which then dilutes the reality—whatever that reality may be. When it comes to Haiti, the general practice is to depict all lower class Haitians as victims in desperate need of outside help. As victims, they are not responsible for any of their own actions, unless an action is deemed praiseworthy, in which case it is promoted as a story of hope.
One stereotype which is often avoided by “respectable” news organizations is the “Vodou Cannibal.” I learned that the hard way. On May 9th of 2012, while working on the essay Once Loved, I filmed a man at the morgue who was skinning dead bodies. Morgue staff explained to me that the bones and soft tissue would be used for anatomy studies only, but my instincts were screaming that something wasn’t right. As I began to show the video to various Haitians and expats for insight, I was shocked that none of them actually seemed surprised. I was repeatedly told the same disturbing rumors, and from wildly different sources. Rumors should never be given much credit, especially in Haiti, but a few valid questions did arise from the resulting conversations. I decided to begin contacting news organizations to offer the video (for free) and suggest an investigation be done by someone more experienced than I. Why was the soft tissue being neatly bagged up, and where did it go? That, I thought, was a question which needed to be answered. I contacted over two dozen journalists with experience working in Haiti. One of them, a well known and respected journalist who has made Haiti the focus of his career, responded. He took the situation very seriously, talked with me at length, and eventually pitched the story to his bureau chief. A small team was gathered together which included some of the best investigative journalists currently working in Haiti—or so I was told. The group studied the video and photographs, discussed the possibilities, and concluded that they would not pursue the story because of the repercussions it would have on the country. I became extremely angry, frustrated, and even depressed. But it was a valuable experience; a little more of my idealism flew right out the window.
Much has already been said regarding Haiti’s earthquake recovery efforts in numerous documentary films. Michele Mitchell’s “Haiti: Where Did The Money Go?” and journalist Kim Ives’ reports on various WikiLeak documents are only a couple examples of the many widely circulated and well-researched stories regarding post-earthquake Haiti. These reports helped answer some of the most common questions asked by the international community. And I kept imagining how helpful it would be if all this information was in one place.
My hope is that Waiting for Haiti could eventually become an important resource of photo essays and documentary videos. Each story would be archived in chronological order to help viewers analyze the country’s progress. The website could be a place where visitors read thoughtful essays, view powerful photography slideshows, and learn, learn, learn. At the heart of it all would be the Michel family. Or more specifically, Jhemy. We would watch him grow up over time and, by doing so, viewers could become emotionally invested in the well being of the country through the life of a child. Instead of the usual approach, with one story now and an update to follow 15 years later, I hope to produce regular updates every other year, or whenever a significant event occurs in Jhemy’s life. It saddens me that I will not be able visit the Michels during their current transition. But I feel extremely grateful for the time we have spent together so far, and also proud that Jhemy is one of the only children in his neighborhood to have actually gotten to know and trust a “blanc”. Jhemy’s mother once said that he might be the only child in the area who isn’t racist towards whites.
Looking back, my “plan” was clearly half-baked. Naively, I thought one photo essay would lead to another, and another. I thought these essays would generate attention, resulting in funding opportunities which would help make the more challenging stories possible. In the long term, I’d like to include additional writers and photographers. All these ideas may may still be possible later, but the current situation prevents the idea from becoming anything more than a thought. I need money, and I don’t have it. Though Waiting for Haiti has not been proposed to every foundation out there, nor have I begged and pleaded for money from every family member and friend, I’ve done more than enough to see that the interest just isn’t there (at least not for those who have the means to provide significant help), and that it’s time to put Waiting for Haiti on hold for a few years; to re-evaluate and come back again later with more experience and a different plan.
For now, my goal is to finish school and find a steady job. When it comes time to pick up and start again, I will be able to continue funding Waiting for Haiti on my own. The project will continue to be a labor of love. After all, it was my love for a friend that helped connect me to the country in the first place.
The other day, one of my former teachers, Julia Dean, replied to an email I had sent out about my Grandparents. She remarked that personal stories are often the best. Her straightforward statement left me wondering how a white man from Los Angeles who doesn’t even speak Creole could go to Haiti and create such intense, personal stories. The answer to that question is also the key to Waiting for Haiti’s current weakness. Although I have deeply personal reasons for choosing which stories to tell, I got caught up playing photojournalist. I was trying to be serious and laudable rather than sincere. This realization is going to be my food for thought for awhile.
To be continued…