[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
The community of Wopisa is high in the mountains in Haiti’s Artibonite department and is only accessible by a walking path that requires several ascents and descents, including scaling a waterfall. This challenging environment necessarily limits access to the community by government and aid agencies. Wopisa is extremely vulnerable to damage from natural disasters, erosion and waterborne diseases such as typhoid and cholera. MCC significantly increased our working presence in this community in 2016 following Hurricane Matthew through agricultural livelihoods and latrine projects. Photographs from Wopisa have been used in MCC materials promoting reforestation and latrine projects, most notably in last year’s Christmas giving catalogue. For this article, I made the trek up to Wopisa to get some feedback from project participants on how their images have been used to generate support for MCC. I also spoke with MCC’s Haitian staff to get their feedback about how these images have been used and about how
MCC uses photographs of project participants in general.
MCC’s work in Wopisa is managed out of our office in the town of Desarmes, where MCC has been working since the 1980s. The current work is Wopisa is part of a three-year disaster response project started after Hurricane Matthew. Most of MCC’s other work in Haiti’s Artibonite department is part of a five-year project funded by Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB). All these projects, many of which are in communities as remote as Wopisa, receive weekly visits from MCC staff members, mostly Haitian nationals. MCC agroforestry technician Michelet Elisamar says that in the community of Kabay, which is part of the CFGB project, the trust built over the course of MCC’s long relationship with the community means project participants feel comfortable having MCC staff take their photos for promotional purposes.
In Wopisa, community leader Previl Pierre echoed that his gratitude for MCC’s work in his community means he has no problem having his photo used to generate support for MCC, but also said he would be happy to collaborate with anyone making an investment in the community. He sees MCC’s photographs as providing a way for donors and supporters elsewhere to understand the reality of life in his community. To that end, Pierre advocated for balance in representation: he wants outsiders to see both the difficult and the beautiful aspects of life in Wopisa. He also expressed a feeling of abandonment by the state and international organizations, a sentiment MCC staff hear frequently when visiting remote communities: “they don’t even know we exist.” Pierre hopes that by sharing photographs of his community, MCC can help raise awareness of the struggles they face on a day-to-day basis. When asked how he felt about photos of his community being used to support latrine projects in other countries, he said he had no problem with this because “Haiti is not the only country that has problems,” and would also be supportive of photos from other countries being used to support projects in Haiti.
Melise Michaline and Louis Vivra, two of the subjects of the second photo, echoed many of Pierre’s sentiments. When I asked them what kind of photos they wanted to see of themselves, both mentioned work. Louis said he likes to see photos of himself working hard, “like a peyizan.” [The Creole word peyizan (French paysan/ne) is generally translated “peasant,” but has roughly the same cluster of meanings that the Spanish campesino/a has elsewhere in Latin America: both in the pride taken by self-identifying peyizan, and in the way it has been mobilized in the service of discrimination and resistance.] Melise, similarly, said she doesn’t like to see photos where people aren’t working. Both said they liked simple, dignified portraits as well.
However, not all MCC photos are taken in communities where we have pre-existing long-term relationships, including some of MCC Haiti’s most widely circulated disaster pictures. After a disaster like an earthquake or hurricane, MCC Haiti staff work to communicate the context and reality of people affected by the situation and to share this information as quickly as possible with the wider MCC audience. These early stories and pictures are more about contextualizing and personalizing the crisis and are less project-connected. Our goal is to produce these stories in the first 72 hours after the disaster, before projects are developed or approved. Jean-Remy Azor, program coordinator in the MCC Desarmes office, acknowledges that this requires MCC staff to be very clear with community members about why we are taking photos and especially about what we can and cannot promise. For example, after Hurricane Irma caused flooding and landslides in the Artibonite department in the fall of 2017, MCC worked with local authorities to visit some of the people affected within 48 hours. MCC staff made sure to explain that the purpose of our photos was to show our constituents the damage that had been caused, but that we did not yet know whether we would be able do a project in that area. This kind of clear, transparent communication is necessary to avoid misunderstandings which have the potential to cause considerable conflict in situations where people are already extremely vulnerable. Transparency and clear communication with project participants are essential to ensure that we maintain the positive relationships MCC has worked so hard to build in the communities in which we work.
I cannot claim that the responses I received to MCC photographs on my visit to Wopiya represent a thorough or objective assessment of how Haitians view MCC’s photography and communications efforts. I may have received very different feedback had I visited people who were photographed shortly after a disaster, or longer-term MCC partners who have welcomed MCC photographers and writers multiple times. In addition, I conducted these interviews both as a foreigner and as a representative of a funder of community projects. So, while the feedback I received was generally positive, it is important to keep in mind that all individuals have their own preferences as to how they would like to be photographed or whether they would like to be photographed at all. Every context is different. My hope is that if we approach photography and communications in terms of collaboration and relationship-building and are continually engaged in honest self-reflection, we can ensure that the stories we tell are meaningful, honest and respectful of those with whom we work.
Annalee Giesebrecht is MCC’s advocacy and communications coordinator in Haiti.
Giesebrecht, Annalee. “Where There is No Road.” MCC website. December 19, 2017. Available at https://mcc.org/ stories/where-there-no-road.
Oswald, Ted. “Lifesaving Latrines.” MCC Haiti blog. December 14, 2016. Available at http://www.haitimcc.org/blog/2016/12/12/the-story-ofwopisa-gabriyl-latrines-asa-tool-in the-fight-againstcholera?rq=wopisa.
Giesebrecht, Annalee. “Faces of the Storm.” MCC Haiti blog. September 16, 2017. Available at http://www.haitimcc.org/blog/2017/9/8/3ik3yjjzpev8ij6urg64oikrg98es4p5 bb5j9366b?rq=hurricane%20irma.