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Children's Photography in Haiti

Travel & news discussion about Haiti

Children's Photography in Haiti

Postby KarenS » Thu Mar 09, 2006 8:54 am

Young Photographers Lift their Masks
by Amy Bracken

JACMEL, Haiti, Mar 8 (IPS) - For a moment, it could have been lower Manhattan. Edgy photos hung on bright white walls inside an old brick warehouse. Men and women from around the globe stood captivated by black-and-white images of monsters and people.

In one of the 16-by-20-inch prints, a boy lies on the beach with opaque waves lapping over his limbs, as sinewy male figures in the ocean twist and turn, apparently washing off body paint with the silted water.

In another, a wiry man with a face lost in shadow leans in to the photographer as a child in the background pauses at a door, staring intently at the camera. The two figures trap the viewer in an eerie apprehension.

The exhibit's images, including those of Carnival costumes and children holding hands, are undeniably dark and disturbing, with dizzying angles, creeping shadows, and daggers of light.

But this is not the work of a New York professional. Behind the cameras were people who know nothing of wealthy cities or galleries or what it would be like to be successful artists. They are 12 Haitian domestic child labourers. Known as restaveks, from the French for "stay with", they are children whose parents, too poor to keep them, sent them to work for other families in exchange for food and shelter.

Most of Haiti's estimated 200,000 restaveks are abused -- many sexually -- and they often wind up on the streets. They are among the most ill-fated citizens of one of the poorest countries in the world, which is why they were chosen to participate in a photography workshop.

In 2004, the founder of Kids With Cameras, a non-profit organisation that teaches photography to some of the most marginalised children around the world, convinced New York-based photographer Gigi Cohen to start her own workshop. She had already been documenting child labour in Haiti and decided to work with children at Foyer Maurice Sixto, a community centre for restaveks on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

Over two months, the 11 girls and one boy, between 10 and 14 years old, learned the principles of photography, and took cheap, plastic Holga cameras home with them to capture their lives. Toward the end, in February 2005, they took their first trip to the southern town of Jacmel to see and capture Haiti's most traditional Carnival, known for its street bands and elaborate papier mache costumes.

In all, the children took more than 5,000 pictures. With help from the Fledgling Fund, whose Creative Media Initiative supports projects that creatively address social problems, as well as Kids With Cameras, Cohen printed 60 of those photos for an exhibit at the Jacmel art foundation, Fondation Sant D'A Jackmel (FOSAJ), to open during Carnival 2006.

During the opening, children in body paint and masks shuffled by outside FOSAJ's giant open doors. Others ducked into papier mache costumes in the building's courtyard, and, to the beat of drums, a swirl of zebras, an orange parrot, a pink pineapple, and other animals and fruit, they stomped and flapped through the gallery.

The eight photographers -- four were unable to make it to the opening -- swarmed around, the girls all wearing summer dresses donated by a New York friend of Cohen's.

All had been stunned upon their arrival in Jacmel to see their own giant images on display.

"I feel proud of myself," said Kettelene Metelus, a tall, slender 14-year-old, flashing a broad smile. She said she hopes to continue to study photography somehow. "I want to know how to make my photos more beautiful." She had taken the picture of the boy at the ocean's edge.

Upon arrival, Cohen had gone through the prints with the children, asking them to critique their own pieces. For some, she said, they had no idea how to describe what they saw. But some were quick to say how much they liked their own work. One was Jerome Rigaud, the only boy.

"I'm really happy to see the photos we did," he said during the opening. "They're beautiful." He repeated several times how happy he was and how beautiful the images were.

All of Rigaud's pictures on display were of Carnival monsters galumphing toward him. For his self-portrait, required of all the artists, he had held the camera up toward the midday sun, casting a long shadow behind him as he winced under the oppressive light.

He said he wanted to be a photographer when he grew up. Short of that, he just wanted to work, and he wanted to be able to leave his current home, where he said he is tied up and beaten.

To Patrick Bernard, a social worker and assistant director of Maurice Sixto, the workshop pumped life into children too often made to feel like shells of human beings. "I think the photography project helped de-zombify the children because children in domesticity aren't treated as people," he said.

Cohen entitled the exhibit "Haiti Unmasked", and she described the project as a way to make overlooked children visible to themselves and to others.

"The first part of the workshop was to empower them through self-expression," she said, "to help them go from always feeling under-appreciated to having self-worth."

Cohen said she hoped an effect of the exhibit itself would be to send a message to adults. "The idea is: Given an opportunity, these kids can do incredible things," she said. "It's partly about adults learning... How can we treat our children in a way that doesn't make them invisible?"

Cohen said she could see from people's reactions to the exhibit that there is a lot to be learned. She said viewers often expressed a belief that Cohen was the real artist, the one responsible for the outcome of the works through darkroom manipulation. Others belittled the significance of the photos by saying it was by accident that they had turned out well.

Cohen called these reactions "defence mechanisms" for those not ready to really see the children. She said she appreciates these comments as part of an important dialogue, but she hopes it will ultimately be a learning experience.

To Cohen, positive feedback is essential. "If children aren't encouraged when they do amazing things and are instead disregardedà [we] are creating adults that are incapable of trusting their own ability. Why not instead praise the child, encourage them, support them and respect them?"

"That way that child will grow up to be self-confident, be secure in his or her choices and believe in his or her own intelligence. After all, as adults in any society it's our responsibility to pass on the best of ourselves to the next generation."

After a month in Jacmel, Boucard said he hopes to take the show to Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince and to other cities around the country. He and Cohen have also discussed not selling the photos (Cohen said she does not want to become the kids' agent) but providing prints in exchange for donations to education funds for them.

Bernard said the impact of the project on the children has been enormous, and he hopes it can continue in some way.

If the children could continue with photography, Bernard said, they could become professionals and therefore have a future independent of their host families. "If tomorrow they can have some money to live," he said, "I think that's all that's needed."
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