"Miss Prag, they don’t have a photography class.” I’m on the phone with Jeff, one of my former students who is now a member of the new Haitian diaspora, displaced by the recent earthquake. His parents sent him from Port-au-Prince to stay with a relative in Queens, New York, until life in Haiti becomes sustainable again.
“Jeff, are you sure? I can’t believe it,” I say, hoping that his guidance counselor at his new high school made a mistake.
“Yeah, Miss, no photography, and I have to pass my bag through this metal thing like at the airport,” he says. Jeff is a high school senior, known in his private school in Haiti for his photography and creative writing skills, now known only as the new kid from Haiti who actually speaks English.
“Miss, there’s so many things here I wish I was taking pictures of, but I don’t have a camera,” he tells me.
For the past year and a half, I lived in Haiti working as a high school photojournalism, creative writing, and sociology teacher, as well as a freelance photojournalist. I moved back to the U.S. a month before the earthquake. This means I had a wild, sometimes manic desire to go back to be with the people I loved in Port-au-Prince. Instead, I watched from far away as the world responded. I have never felt so powerless and simultaneously so compelled to act, yet I could only reach people with encouraging emails and prayer.
I had moved to Haiti to do a photojournalism internship with Mennonite Central Committee. During that time, I began looking for a way to collaborate with Haitian teenagers. I had previously facilitated photojournalism classes for at-risk youth in the U.S., and I was eager to do the same in Haiti.
I soon found work as a teacher at Quisqueya Christian School (QCS), a private American school with students from the elite population of Haiti and the international expatriate community. All my students spoke fluent English and were preparing to go to college in North America. Yet their affluent upbringing had not shielded them from suffering. I soon became acquainted with the trauma these young people had experienced from kidnapping and other crimes targeting Haiti’s wealthy residents, as well as trauma from frequent transitions between homes and cultures all over the world. At Quisqueya, I had an opportunity not only to teach, but also — through writing and photography assignments — to help students access these traumatic events and give voice to their experiences in works of art.
With a supportive administration and a grant from the photo-sharing website Snapfish, I was able to open my classroom for a month to five Haitian students from a trade school and orphanage called Timkatec, part of the less privileged population of Port-au-Prince. During that time, the QCS students taught what they had learned about photography to their guests, who in turn shared images of Haitian culture that were new to my QCS students.
The exchange was often mind-boggling. At one point, I witnessed a discussion between the two groups of students about Vodou rituals, a fairly taboo subject at our Christian school. One of the Timkatec artists had taken his camera to a celebration in a nearby cemetery for a Vodou holy day, something my QCS students would never have been allowed to attend.
During the discussion, I took notes, demonstrating to my photojournalism students how to conduct an interview, while watching the nonchalant attitude of the photographer as he explained a culture he knew so well. As we continued to learn, the other Timkatec artists chimed in, feeling empowered by a moment in which they were teaching their hosts something new. It was a dialogue in which two groups of young artists shared perspectives with one another and found common ground in their love for photography.
The result of our month together was a photo book with captions and artist statements in both English and Creole, which was self-published a month before the earthquake.
In the time that has passed since the earthquake, I have watched my former students respond to their trauma with eloquent words and stunning photographs that express a longing for some semblance of normalcy. They use blogs, social networking sites like Facebook, and photo-sharing sites like Flickr to share their stories and grieve together. Many are staying with relatives in Miami and New York City and attending school in their new temporary homes.
I am so thankful to bear witness to the work of young artists like Jeff, who can show the world a Haiti that the media will never see. Recently Jeff told me that he “doesn’t feel safe without a camera in his pocket.” It’s a tool that gives him power at a time when he feels so powerless.
Jeff has saved his money and will soon purchase a camera of his own to document his new home in Queens. He says that words are failing him, but photographs will speak for his soul as he grieves. Though his images will have snow and metal detectors instead of rubble and helicopters, he is still telling his story. And he has discovered that by telling it, he will heal.
—Photo by Pancha Moreno
Editor’s Note: View photographs from Prag’s students’ self-published book, along with post-earthquake photos from her student Jeff.