Madame: Part Two
Most Haitian families live in common-law marriages, some for over 25 years, simply because of the expense a ceremony would incur. They usually have several children and are forced to survive on less than a dollar a day. It’s a daily reality that parents must often choose which child will not eat. But in this culture, a chance at marriage brings with it a sense of pride within their community and allows both bride and groom to be accepted as family and receive an inheritance. Once married, a younger woman will be treated with respect, and a middle-aged woman can now be called Madame.
I have photographed weddings for nearly a decade. So when I had the chance to travel with Diane this spring and document over a dozen Haitian weddings, I knew I had to go.
I dove in deep, fundraising and seeking out companies interested in donating photo supplies. I created an online campaign, MADAME: A Photographic Approach to Giving Back, and was blown away at the ripple effect of generosity. The weeks leading up to the departure date seemed foggy and unreal. I was an inexperienced traveler, heading to a country I had only heard about through TV reports of earthquakes, destruction and despair, but the chance to document, to capture and to preserve these memories for lifelong partners pushed fear aside. Before I knew it, tickets were booked, immunizations were injected and the trip that would change my life had begun.
March 22, 2013:
Stepping off the plane and down onto Haitian land, I felt the warmth that I had been missing during the winter months. Within minutes we were whisked away, heading towards the remote area of Saint Louis du Nord, home for the next nine days. Looking out the window of the truck, I was hypnotized by the majestic beauty of the mountains contrasted with the debris littering the countryside. I desperately wanted to slow down and talk with the people walking along the road. What were they thinking? How were they feeling? I wanted to know their stories. We made several stops along the way, each playing a role in helping me understand how it feels to be the minority. Eight hours on bumpy dirt roads, dodging goats and people and potholes the size of swimming pools, put us at our destination, a short 150 miles from the airport we’d flown into in Port-au-Prince.
March 23, 2013:
Setting up the dressing room for the wedding day was surreal. Quietly, Diane and I laid out the dresses and tuxedos and lined shoes against the walls of a surgery room in the clinic of a mission base. It was sticky and hot, and an overpowering hospital stench hung thick in the air. Diane mentioned to me how grateful the couples are just to have a wedding no matter how hot they are in their gowns or how stinky the rooms. At that moment a shift in my perspective emerged.
Once prepped for the upcoming weddings, I grabbed my camera, anxious to take stunning (can we remove stunning?) photographs to share back home. That is, after all, what I had come to do, right?
Architecture and landscape shots eased me into my surroundings until eventually I felt confident enough to move my lens towards my favorite subject: people. Children were playing in a courtyard nearby and I could feel their eyes following my every move. When I finally built up the courage to snap a photo of them, the word "NO!" was yelled out to me. It stopped me in my tracks. Bewildered by the harshness of its tone, I instantly felt helpless. Helpless to communicate how beautiful that moment was and how I simply wanted to document that for them. In that moment, I also felt embarrassed. Had I just come across as a traveler snapping photos of the less fortunate to exploit back home? I had spent weeks leading up to this trip reading about immersing in a culture, not simply coming as an observer. I had broken my cardinal rule.
I took a deep breath and slipped away to gather my thoughts. In a little hideaway, I did the only thing I could think to do. I journaled, hoping my aviator sunglasses would hide the tears. On this late Saturday morning, I sat in the poorest city in the poorest country of the Western Hemisphere, asking myself, "Why am I here?"
I knew why I was there. But what was my purpose? I realized that for the first time, my camera was blocking me from understanding the people I was documenting. The language barrier and the lack of trust would make it nearly impossible to do what I had come to Haiti to do unless I changed my approach. With a fearful heart, I put the camera away and participated.
March 25-26, 2013:
The following days were filled with laughter and celebration. I clutched onto an interpreter and pushed myself into situations that were uncomfortable. I introduced myself to fourteen couples that were to be married and offered a mini “engagement” photo session on the eve of the ceremony. In these brief, informal sessions, I began to gain their trust.
The morning of the ceremony Diane and I listened through interpreters as brides and grooms shared their stories. One bride told us that she and her partner had 12 children together, yet never had the means to marry. And a sweet older couple giddily shared that their courtship had only been a mere two months. One groom’s smile made my heart leap as he repeated “happy, happy” while slipping on his fancy white gloves.
During the ceremony, I held back tears as I witnessed and photographed couple after couple committing their lives to each other. There were many sweet moments, far too many to write. There were no lavish elements to these ceremonies, but the simplicity of watching as a groom nudged his wife at the altar and smiled at her in the happiest and most loving of ways was proof that Diane and I were truly a part of giving a lasting gift to these families.
March 27-29, 2013:
In the days following the weddings, hundreds of digital images were printed via a small office inkjet, which Diane had brought, onto photo paper donated by a camera company back home. We also brought picture frames so we could gift two framed photographs to each couple. It was a tedious and laborious process, given the confines of available generator time, but here and there I would take breaks, go to the market and continue practicing how to step out of my comfort zone. I will never forget how I felt finally realizing the importance of not holding myself back and being present in each moment. I just needed to look into the eyes of these beautiful people and say Bonswa!
Since returning, there hasn’t been a day when I haven't thought of a Haitian child's smile or the friendly culture that I grew to love. Now back home, I have challenged myself to meet new people and look for opportunities to give back. I’ve realized that the importance of do-gooding doesn't necessarily rest in extreme adventures like traveling to a poverty-stricken country, but rather in doing good in our own backyard every day.
Recently, I was asked to teach a photography class at a treatment facility for substance-dependent expecting mothers. I’m not sure that prior to the trip, with the pending release of a cookbook to photograph and countless clients booked months in advance, I would have said yes. Post-Haiti, it wasn’t even a question. I had to.
Each of us, whether a photographer in the States or an investment banker in Austria, has the tools at our disposal to do good. Lift your head away from the computer screen and look for ways to give back, whether through your business or your skill set or your passion. And I'm not talking about donating a chunk of money to a charity on your lunch break. Let’s get our hands dirty.
I thought I went to Haiti to give, to use my talent as a means of helping others. But as Diane said long before my feet ever left U.S. soil, “You go there thinking you will change their lives, but it’s them who change you.” I’m forever changed.
In July, I will again, be heading back to Haiti to give the gift of phototgraphy! With every donation given in support of this campaign, it will help a family receive a collection of photographs from their wedding day. I am still in need of paper, a printer, ink, and the remaining expenses of travel, which include plane ticket, housing, and food.
If you believe in this cause and my approach to giving back, please feel free to donate to this campaign.
Many thanks and love to you all!