A group of artists and educators organized a series of photography workshops for children and adults a few months ago in the Caribbean. The workshops were set up in tent villages for displaced persons in earthquake-devastated Haiti. NJCU is showcasing 14 of the photographs produced in the workshop in the exhibition “FOTOKONBIT: Haiti Through Haitian Eyes.”
The public will be able to purchase images of different sizes. The proceeds from print sales will benefit FotoKonbit, the workshop participants, and two Haitian grassroots organizations: ORE and PRODEV. I recently caught up with Noelle Theard, one of the curators of the exhibition, to discuss the project, and the role that photography and arts education can play in empowering a community.
Brendan Carroll: Hi Noelle. Tell us about yourself? Who are you and what do you do?
Noelle Theard: I’m one of three founding members of FotoKonbit, along with Marie Arago and Tatiana Mora Liautaud. I am a Miami-based freelance photographer, educator, and artist. I teach two courses as an adjunct professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies program at Florida International University, and I also teach photography to youth at Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
BC: What is FotoKonbit, and why is it important?
NT: FotoKonbit is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and photography initiative that partners with grassroots organizations to facilitate photography workshops with communities and create a portrait of Haiti and its diaspora through the eyes of Haitian people.
Inspired by the Creole word “konbit” which can be defined as the coming together of similar talents in an effort towards a common goal, we use our skills as photographers, educators, and artists to make a positive difference the best way we know how- through photography.
By partnering with established Haitian organizations, FotoKonbit is uniquely positioned to inspire hope through creative expression and provide Haitians with the opportunity to document their reality and share it with the largest possible audience.
BC: How were the workshops organized, and who participated?
NT: FotoKonbit workshops take place over a period of five days. We work with film cameras first, return to Miami for processing, and take the images back to the groups we work with.
When we return, we bring digital cameras for the group members to start FotoKonbit photo clubs, where they have equipment to check out for purely artistic or commercial shoots.
For the first round in May 2010, our first group was comprised of 15 adults and in the schools we worked with 30 children. We start with the basics: what is photography, how do we use the cameras? Then we move to more conceptual questions like: what is important about your community, what are your personal interests, and finally, what do you want the world to see about Haiti?
BC: What type of cameras did you provide?
NT: We used ‘Holga’ cameras. Originally created as the “people’s camera” in 1980s China to bring photography to the masses, they are inexpensive and have a wonderfully artsy aesthetic. They use medium format film, and the images created are square.
BC: The workshops were organized in Camp Perrin and Port-au-Prince. Why did you choose these locations?
NT: We partner with Haitian grassroots organizations whose work truly inspires us.
In Camp Perrin we had the great privilege to work with an organization called ORE that focuses on sustainable development and agriculture. ORE and its director, Mousson Pierre, are highly respected in the community, and have made incredible efforts to aid the displaced people from the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince.
Several of our adult participants were among these displaced people, and have been working to forge their lives in this small southern town. The quality of life in Camp Perrin is wonderful – fresh water, a strong agricultural tradition, and a close-knit community. Still, there is very little work, which makes it hard to resist the lure back to the destroyed capital.
In Port-au-Prince, we worked in the Peguyville neighborhood with PRODEV who is providing education to more than twenty-five tent cities across the city. They have recently opened a permanent school called “Novelle Ecole Zoranj” where FotoKonbit will be regularly teaching a photography curriculum.
The children were wonderful, excited about photographing, since most had never used a camera before. They took to it immediately, walking around the neighborhood and making photographs of the things that were important to them.
BC: I recently oversaw a series of community-based art-making workshops for children and adults in Harlem. The children jumped in headfirst. The adults were wary-and the adolescents were much more so. How did the participants respond to the project, and what type of reactions did they have after they saw their photographs in print?
NT: The adults were much more serious in their approach – this was a serious endeavor that required intention and concentration, and the results were really stunning. For the most part, each frame was carefully composed and thought out. The kids were much more carefree, shooting a roll of film in just a few minutes! All the photographers were of course thrilled to see their work.
BC: Did you show examples of other photographers for the participants to model their pictures on? For example, Expanding the Walls, a program organized by the Studio Museum of Harlem, use the photographer James Van Der Zee as a study model to help guide novice photographs.
NT: To inspire the students we showed work from previous workshops that I have done with grassroots organizations in Miami in a project called the Galeria del Barrio. In the curriculum we are building, we will incorporate great photographers like the ones you mentioned.
BC: Some people do not like to have their picture taken. How did the communities of Camp Perrin and Port-au-Prince respond to the photographers?
NT: People responded well, especially because in most cases, they knew the person behind the camera. Sometimes the photographers were denied by people who did not want to be photographed, but overall, people were very open. We talked about strategies for making portraits, and told them what we have learned as photographers ourselves: never take it personally when someone says no.
BC: The photographs produced in the workshops will be on view in the exhibition “FOTOKONBIT: Haiti Through Haitian Eyes” in the Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery at NJCU. How did the exhibition come about?
NT: Deborah Jack is a great photographer and professor at NJCU, and we know each other through Rosie Gordon Wallace, who is the director of the Diaspora Vibe Gallery here in Miami. She put me in touch with Midori Yoshimoto, who has done an amazing job of organizing the exhibition.
BC: Will any of the children and adults from the workshops make it over to the exhibition?
NT: The photographers will see the images in our Haiti exhibition in March, but won’t be able to travel to this exhibition in the U.S. We will document the opening with photos and video and send it to them.
BC: I visited the project’s Web site. The photographs taken in Camp Perrin and Port-au-Prince cover a range of subject matter, and convey a warmth and gentleness rarely associated with Haiti. I love the image of the dog in repose on a backyard patio. This picture is quiet, warm and unsuspecting, and reveals a sense of whimsy and mischief. What’s your favorite photograph in the series, and why? What does it reveal about Haiti, and the person who took the photograph?
NT: My favorite photograph is the market, because it looks like a Haitian painting! I also love the photograph of the man fishing in the lake, holding a bright yellow bucket, and looking right into the camera. The setting is so beautiful, and the image so subtle. The photographer, Smith Neuvieme, is a wonderfully perceptive, thoughtful, and endearing person. When we asked him to tell us about this picture, he said he wanted to show how different people work, what people do to get by. Smith is one of the people displaced by the earthquake from Port-au-Prince and is adjusting to life in Camp Perrin.
BC: My other favorite photograph is the portrait of the young girl standing in a lot in front of a cinderblock wall covered in graffiti. She is about eight or nine. There is a slight bounce in her pose-one leg is in front of the other. A satchel is draped across her shoulder, and she is holding the straps in both hands-maybe she is on her way to school. Her outfit is smart: gingham shirt, skirt, white socks, and red show cap. This girl has sass, and she has both feet on the ground. I detect a small grin on her face. Does she know the photographer? Is it someone in her family?
NT: What a great reading of that photograph! Yes, she knows the photographer, it is one of her young classmates at the school in the Peguyville neighborhood.
BC: As I began to write this Q+A, I did an image search of Haiti in Google. The results were dominated by images of devastation. The audience can expect to see a radical different Haiti in the exhibition. What types of photographs did you choose, and why?
NT: We chose photographs that spoke to what life is like in Haiti, especially the day-to-day. Many of the Haitians in diaspora that have seen the photos have said that the images make them nostalgic for home. Other people who are less familiar with Haiti have been surprised by the abundance of food at the market, or the enormous waterfalls and lush vegetation. The images challenge negative representations of Haiti by simply portraying reality – that’s a pretty powerful thing!
BC: What I know of Haiti is limited to popular media. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas, and has recently suffered innumerable tragedies-including a Cholera outbreak, a 7.0 earthquake, and several tropical storms. Despite these severe realities, the participants produced a series of photographs of extreme softness, poise, and beauty. As I sat writing I realized that this is one the first times I have encountered Haiti from the point of view of a Haitian. Can you speak about the importance of giving Haitians a stage to share their experience, strength, and hope?
NT: Rather than being represented by outsiders, FotoKonbit participants are using cameras to imagine the new Haiti by representing themselves, their lives, their interests, and values. Not surprisingly, the result is radically different from the stereotypical images we see of Haiti as portrayed by the media. Here, in these FotoKonbit images, we see community, family, life and all its joys and difficulties, but above all, we see dignity.
BC: Have you kept in touch with any of the participants in the workshops? And do you know what they are up to now?
NT: We have kept in touch with all of the participants. The adults in Camp Perrin have decided to start a FotoKonbit photo studio, and the students are now out of the tents and in a permanent school called Ecole Zoranj.
Original post may be found here.
If you go
WHAT: FOTOKONBIT: Haiti Through Haitian Eyes
WHEN: Through Dec. 14
WHERE: The Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery, NJCU, 2039 Kennedy Blvd. Hepburn Hall, room 323
DETAILS: Curated by Noelle Theard, Marie Arago, and Tatiana Mora-Liautaud