Don’t Take My Picture
“Don’t take my picture!”
This was a phrase that I heard over and over while working on a case study video for SOIL with the New-York based filmmaker Monica Wise. Although this was Monica’s first trip to Haiti, she is both an experienced traveler and fearless behind the camera, spending hours at SOIL’s waste treatment site with a mask protecting her mouth, getting close and personal with the team while they dumped buckets of human waste. Nothing fazed her.
“I can hide behind the camera. As long as I’m filming, I’m so focused on what I’m trying to capture that everything else becomes background noise.”
While Monica was concentrating on filming SOIL’s activities, I was playing the fixer: translating interview questions, following the production schedule, and keeping the peace. While the SOIL team members were excited about participating in the film, people in the street were less enthusiastic.
“Why are you filming here, foreigner? You’re making Haiti look like a garbage dump.”
In response to the many comments and questions we received while filming, I would try my best to reassure people that, “No, we’re not taking your picture, see? The lens cap is on the camera.” Or, “We’re trying to show the context in which we work, to show why sanitation is important.”
Some of my attempts were certainly more successful than others, but in a few cases, I stumbled in trying to justify our gaze through the camera. After all, how many times have foreigners looked down on Haiti with disgust, fear, or disdain?
There is a type of stigma all over the world that affects people living in poverty. People living in poverty are often disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards such as illegal dumping, lack of sanitation infrastructure, and little protection against natural disasters. Simultaneously, these same people are likened to the environment around them, as is evidenced by derogatory terms and stereotypes such as “trashy,” “dirty,” “bad neighborhood,” “ghetto,” etc. As a result, poor people themselves are treated as dirty, dangerous, and infectious, and their environmental conditions are seen as merely a product of their culture. The causes of their own misery.
Take for example the 2010 New York Times article by David Brooks. After the tragic earthquake hit Haiti in the same year, journalists and pundits sought to understand Haiti’s extreme poverty. Brooks wrote: “Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences.” Brooks saw the poverty and pollution in Haiti and assumed that the driving cause is Haitian culture, completely erasing Haiti’s unique and exceptional history of slavery, war, revolution, foreign intervention, and embargoes.
Representation is a battlefield of political histories, personal and collective values, human dignity and self expression. Oftentimes, the development industry wields the image of the person of color living in poverty to gain sympathy for their projects, and subsequently, more funding. Or worse, foreigner journalists might take a picture to accompany an article like Brooks’. Haitians are well aware of this, the commoditization of their circumstances, and are fiercely resistant to it, hence the ubiquitous “don’t take my picture” response. They don’t want their country to be represented as a trashcan because the condition of Haiti will reflect on them.
For this reason, we try to be extremely cognizant of the way SOIL portrays Haiti in our words, photos, and videos. While we are far from perfect, the relationships we have built with our staff, clients, and neighbors drive us to ensure we’re telling the story they want to share.
One of our interviews was with a SOIL household toilet client, Acevil Micanord, in a neighborhood close to the bay in Cap-Haitien where there is little sanitation coverage. We wanted to know how he decided to adopt an Ecological Sanitation toilet in his home, and what made him willing to pay for the service.
He graciously welcomed us into his home for the interview, but he was clear that he had his own message to share: “We are people that were struck by the earthquake on January 12, 2010. That’s what left us here, but we’re not from here. It’s life’s circumstances. We know cleanliness. But it’s where we ended up that represents us poorly, because we now live in a place unfit to live.”
It was a powerful moment that made me want to hide behind the camera, disappear into representation of poverty without having to face its sharp edges, apologize to Acevil for coming with a camera. But I think that he agreed to the interview because he wanted the world to see the condition his family lives in, and to understand that the cause is life’s circumstances, or what Paul Farmer might call “structural violence,” the way in which “large-scale social forces crystalize into the sharp, hard surfaces of individual suffering.”
Acevil’s face was full of emotion when he stopped talking. Algate, SOIL’s hygiene promoter, patted his back and said thank you for sharing. I said thank you as well and we packed up the film equipment to go. He had said what he wanted to say, and he trusted us enough to leave the work of representation in our hands.
Brookes, David. 2010 The Underlying Tragedy. New York Times Global Edition, Opinion section. January 14.
Farmer, Paul. 2006 The Uses of Haiti. Monroe, Main: Common Courage Press.
Photo credit by Monica Wise 2015.
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