Helping Haiti Heal

Helping Haiti Heal

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Over the last two and a half years, I have had to ask myself more than once why I continue going back to Haiti. The answer to this question has evolved a small amount after each visit. My current answer is that I have finally experienced something undeniably good that has come out of the 2010 earthquake; and I would like to see more. This good experience that I speak of was spending 10 days with a non-governmental organization (NGO) called J/P Haiti Relief Organization (HRO), which was formed by Sean Penn and Sanela Diana Jenkins, whose foundation supported initial relief efforts in the weeks following the devastating earthquake.

I have some very strong opinions about NGOs. Two disheartening experiences with large and well-known organizations had put a bitter taste in my mouth. This time, things were very different.

After the earthquake that had devastated Port au Prince, I traveled to Haiti in January 2010 with a couple of friends. My personal goal was to simply photograph the experience; to document anything and everything. Up to that point I had photographed pivotal and sometimes tragic moments in my personal life. I had also traveled quite a lot. I yearned to photograph a historical event that would be important to many others, not just myself. Very typical desires for an aspiring photojournalist.

There was no way to know during that first trip to Haiti, with all the chaos in Port-au-Prince at the time that I would meet a young man named Jeanmary Michel, who would become one of my best friends. It was through the Michel family that Haiti got its hooks into me. During my second visit in March 2011, I stayed with the Michel family and focused my images around day-to-day life. At the time, I was also a volunteer photographer for the American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles. I was asked to meet up with the Director of Emergency Operations in Haiti, to photograph him for the newsletter in Los Angeles, and take a tour of the projects and facilities in Port-au-Prince. This was the first time I witnessed just how inefficient and detached an organization and its staff can become.

Coincidentally, many of my friends were telling me that Sean Penn had started an organization in Haiti and that I should check it out. On the plane to Haiti, I read a Vanity Fair article called ‘Welcome to Camp Penn.’ Though I immediately made cynical assumptions about the organization and Mr. Penn’s motivations, I was interested nevertheless. Jeanmary and I decided to seek out this Camp Penn to see what it was like in comparison.

Jeanmary and I showed up at the Petion-Ville Club where we had heard J/P HRO was running an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp of around 60,000 Haitians. On the surface, it was immediately obvious that this organization was taking care of its beneficiaries. Tents were actively being repaired, the roads through the camp were cleaned and maintained, and J/P staffers were living in close proximity to the people they were trying to help. This was a huge contrast to what I had previously seen at other IDP camps, which were littered with garbage and up to a 40-minute drive from the organization watching over them.

Our best impression was formed when staff members spotted us walking through the camp; they immediately asked us to leave and not to take any pictures of the residents. We had not received permission to be there, and it was clear that the staff were extremely protective of their beneficiaries. We talked for a moment before leaving, and I collected some cards in order to contact the right people. I was hoping to get permission to photograph the organization in the future. This brief visit to the camp had me yearning to volunteer, and see more.

After returning home, I resigned form the Red Cross and began sending e-mails to various people at J/P. I explained that I had a long-term photography project on Haiti and that my immediate goal was to document key aspects of Haitian society. I said that I’d like to document J/P because it seemed to me that they are going about things the right way.

Over the course of the next year and a half I began planning a third trip to Port-au-Prince so Jeanmary and I could finish two short photo essays: one on family life, the other on the deceased in Haiti’how Haitians would prefer to be treated after death, compared to the extremely grim reality for many. A week before my departure, I sent another e-mail to the communications department at J/P. This time there was a quick response from the head of the department, Carrie Gay. We set up a meeting at her office in Los Angeles and a wonderful arrangement was made.

The organization had hired a full time staff photographer named Keziah Jean, who had graduated from the Cin’ Institute in Jacmel, Haiti. She is a very talented videographer, though her job with J/P required both still images and video. It was absolutely perfect timing. J/P wanted updated marketing photographs and, most importantly, someone who could come to Haiti and mentor Keziah on still photography.

I returned to Haiti in May of this year and after the two photo essays were wrapped up, I moved from Jeanmary’s home in Cite Miliaire to the J/P staff house in Delmas. I’d be staying in the house for the next five days. Right away, I felt at home. Many NGOs spend vast amounts of money on high salaries and luxurious accommodations for volunteers and staff. J/P does its best to provide its people with everything they need in order to effectively do their jobs, but if you want private quarters, you’ll be sleeping in a tent. There are no private air-conditioned rooms with flat-screen TVs. There is security, power and extension cords for fans, showers with hot water, a well-equipped kitchen, and a satellite phone to call home at night and hear your fianc’s voice. The CEO of the organization, Sean Penn, stays in the staff house with everyone else.

If this all sounds very nice given that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, I should point out that while volunteering for Mercy Ships, I lived on a hospital ship in Monrovia, Liberia for three months in 2007. Liberia (2011 GDP per capita: $456) is significantly poorer than Haiti (2011 GDP per capita: $1,236). This hospital ship had a full-service Starbucks on board and a cafeteria that could almost rival a Las Vegas buffet.

The focus of J/P is clearly, and rightly so, on the beneficiaries. I can personally attest to the care Haitians receive at both clinics (J/P 1 and J/P 2) as I ended up meeting a lucky mosquito and catching malaria. Because I was sick, my five-day visit to J/P turned into 10 days. Fortunately, I was still able to spend lots of time with Keziah and to see and photograph all the different projects currently in the works.

If this article sounds like a promotional piece for J/P, good! (though nothing I’m saying is PR lip service.) This last trip to Haiti was my first to end on a positive note. And for that I feel extremely grateful. This organization has heart and soul, and that is a rare thing in a country so inundated with jaded expats and ineffective NGOs. The changes they are trying to make are actually tangible from the ground level. For a detailed explanation of current projects in the works at J/P, I encourage you to visit their web site to read more.

Robert Larson, who grew up in the Palisades, will return to Haiti at the end of the summer focusing on the beautiful areas in the country and the potential growth of tourism in lesser cities such as Jacmel.

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