Today’s post comes from my friend Baron Batch. Baron is a photography, philanthropist, and a professional football player on the side.
I’m glad to have Baron posting today and I’m especially excited about the topic – Humanity and Photography. If you’ve been following along the last few months you will notice we have talked a lot about humanity and photography and their corrolation (here, here, and here). Specifically we have talked about how to value humanity when entering new cultures – human first. photographer second.
I was glad to get Baron’s story about working for an NGO in Haiti as a photographer. His story resonates with many stories I’ve heard of photographers visiting new cultures for the first time and is a strong reminder for us all to value the person over the picture.
To shoot or not to shoot?
That was the question that rubbed my mind raw like a pebble in a shoe as I walked nervously through the streets of Port Au Prince Haiti in January of 2011. The thought of pulling my camera out made me uncomfortable. Realistically the camera I was using was worth more than most Haitians make in a lifetime – and when you’re a foreigner the locals know it. Even though I was black like the rest of the Haitians, they looked at me the same as all the other foreigners – with a stare that simply said, “How dare you?”
My hands and mind were in conflict with my heart as I continued to walk though the streets of this unfamiliar world. This was unlike anything that I had ever seen or experienced, and I’m sure that my facial expressions showed it. Actually, I know that my facial expressions showed because of how the locals looked at me. It was a look of disgust blended finely with obvious anger. “Snap out of it Baron, you aren’t at the zoo.” Is what I kept telling myself as I walked. “These are people. This is where these people live.”
I thought. “This is their home. You are a visitor here.”
I was on the trip to document a medical team photographically – it was my sole purpose on the trip. We had come to Port Au Prince to do some trading in the city, and I had yet to photograph anything. We passed collapsed buildings, churches, and schools that I recognized from other photos that I had seen on CNN and other mainstream news outlets. The photographer in me said, “Pull out your camera right now and get that shot!” But my heart simply said, “Don’t.”
I began to take out my camera and disregarded every fiber of my being that was screaming for me to put it away. Before I got my camera completely out of my bag, I witnessed something I will never forget… something that will forever give me perspective on the importance of respecting others and valuing humanity before anything else.
As I began to pull the camera from my bag I heard a scream followed by a barrage of words that I didn’t understand. I quickly looked up, startled, at the commotion only to see a Haitian woman leaning out her window screaming at a group of Americans. She was screaming in Haitian Creole. I don’t understand Haitian Creole one bit, but a pissed of demeanor is universal. I stared across the street as the woman continued to yell at the Americans all while they continued to take pictures. Not sure what was taking place I turned to our translator and asked “Why is she so mad? What did those Americans do to piss her off? What’s she saying to them?”
Our translator replied, “She is angry because they are taking pictures by her old house that was destroyed in the quake. She says that her family is still under the rubble. She just wanted the Americans to go away.”I looked up and I could see that the Haitian woman had streams coming down her face.Then it hit me. The Americans across the street were not only posing for pictures by a woman’s home that had been destroyed, they were walking on the graves of her entire family.
I put my camera back in the bag and didn’t take it out again the entire time we were in Port Au Prince. I didn’t take a single photograph there.
Human decency and photography should go hand in hand for this reason. Especially when you are the visitor. I’d like to say that I knew this before experiencing this story, but that would be a lie. In all honesty I was about to go walk on the graves of the Haitian woman’s entire family oblivious to the fact that they rested under the rubble. I’m glad that I didn’t. What I learned that day is to never let your humanity be compromised. That is a truth that I’ll always carry with me no matter where I go, especially with my camera.
We are all humans before anything else. If you miss this one simple point you have missed everything. It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than you. And it’s for sure bigger than a single photograph.