Photography Collective Shows the ‘Other Haiti’
Growing up in the outskirts of the Haitian port city of Jacmel, Jean Paul Saint Fleur yearned to show how he saw his community: the roofer working with pride; the fisherman hauling in his catch; the centenarian happily marking a milestone.
Saint Fleur believed his hillside village, Tessert, was more than a speck of dirt roads in a French-speaking Caribbean nation marked by disasters and crisis. And Jacmel was more than the heaps of plastic water bottles and trash so often depicted in the foreign press.
Haiti, for Saint Fleur, was a land of sweeping beauty, rich history, and great promise. But without a camera, and no training on how to photograph what he saw, Saint Fleur wondered how he could show it all. Then, he met photojournalist Marie Arago.
Arago told Saint Fleur about FotoKonbit, the Haiti-run, non-profit organization that she and two other photographers co-founded in 2010 to teach photography. The organization, she told him, was holding a photography workshop in Jacmel, and Saint-Fleur was invited to participate.
“The first day they were teaching us, I didn’t believe I could become a photographer,” Saint Fleur, 24, recalls. “But then I started to see how easy it was and I kept challenging myself to see if I could do more. When I did, I was very happy.”
Four years ago, Saint Fleur was invited by Arago and her fellow FotoKonbit co-founders to join as a member. The distinction, she says, is given to those who successfully make the transformation from student to photographer, and are ready to either take on a professional assignment or lead a project.
In all, there are 10 members, Arago says, although FotoKonbit has trained more than 100 students and adults throughout Haiti in the art of photography during its nearly ten years of existence.
“He’s become a really great photographer,” she says of Saint Fleur, who recently was gifted with his own camera by the organization. “The images that he shows of his community are just amazing.”
THE OTHER HAITI
Conceptualized in 2009 by Arago and photographers Noelle Theard and Tatiana Mora Liautaud, FotoKonbit was launched in Haiti a year later, about three months after the country’s devastating January 12 earthquake.
The disaster left more than 300,000 dead, according to the government, and about 1.5 million Haitians homeless, and an equal number injured. Along with bringing aid groups to Haiti, which is the hemisphere’s poorest country with the majority of Haitians living on less than $2 a day, the catastrophe also brought a wave of journalists and photojournalists looking to capture the massive loss of lives.
But missing in most of their narratives, and the worlds’ attention, was the other Haiti.
“Haitians are very involved in discussing contemporary realities and facing problems and also celebrating their culture,” Theard, who is of Haitian descent, says. “I was so sickened when the earthquake hit by how photographers were going there to cut their teeth."
Herself a former freelancer who worked for the Miami Herald, among other publications, Theard says she understands the importance of creating positive representations of Haiti, a country that has historically been represented in ways that have been detrimental to its people and its national identity.
“However, I am not sure just having positive images is enough,” she concedes. “Having photographs of beaches to prove that Haiti is beautiful is important, but also giving a range of visual representations, from the very beautiful to the very difficult. It helps to paint a more realistic portrait of Haiti through the perspective of Haitians.”
What makes FotoKonbit different, what makes it special, says Theard, who works in philanthropy and teaches photography at Parsons School of Design, is that it uses photography to challenge the conventional Haiti narrative: a political basket case plagued by poverty and disaster.
“It is not just about teaching people how to take pictures, but how to elevate and complicate the discussions we are having about Haiti through visual representation,” she says. “Photography provides a language of its own, its own visual language in ways that challenge discussions, challenge stereotypes and also provide—a creative outlet for people to express themselves and what they think.”
Some of FotoKonbit’s photographers are making idyllic photographs of the Haitian countryside, but some are in the middle of the recent protests denouncing government corruption and ineptitude in downtown Port-au-Prince. Others are taking portraits, giving families their first printed image of themselves.
“For us, photography is a very expansive media, a very accessible media. And so what we want to do is make it more accessible for Haitians to express themselves through photography,” Theard says.
In addition to Theard, Arago, and Liautaud (a photographer with a social activist background), FotoKonbit’s core team includes Frederic and Ralph Dupoux. Brothers, they are Haitian photographers who live in Haiti. Ralph serves as FotoKonbit’s creative director while Frederic, an accomplished commercial photography, teaches technique, showing students how to edit, crop, and adjust photos using Adobe programs.
Together they are guided by a five-member board in a non-hierarchical structure that moves away from the traditional top-down model and encourages photographers to provide input in the organization.
The organization's name is a combination of the Haitian Creole word for photo and a farming term that describes people working together to accomplish a goal in their community.
“The idea of the konbit is where everybody comes together and contributes, and they are able to sustain a community through collective effort,” Theard says. “The idea of FotoKonbit is that this is a collective model where photographers are learning to take pictures but continuing the broader conversations about Haiti, representations of Haiti, and are becoming a community unto themselves. We have a network of photographers who are part of our collective.”
Arago says while initially the goal of the organization was to create a balance to a lot of the images coming out of the earthquake, the group also wanted to provide the people with whom they worked a way to make money.
“Whether it was as a classic photographer or someone in a community who could start doing portraits. And also, especially for the younger students, we wanted to provide a way for people to explore their communities and to share that,” she says.
Those goals remain, but today as the organization looks to sustain its growth and become an institution with staying power, it is also looking to support some of the photographers FotoKonbit has been mentoring by connecting them with work.
For example, Arago says, she recently accepted a freelance assignment with a client in Haiti on the condition that the next time they need a photographer, they would tap the FotoKonbit member she took along as an assistant. But extending one instance into an ongoing practice isn’t easy, especially in low-resource Haiti where cameras, computers, and other photography equipment aren’t easy to come by.
“We are always scraping things together,” Arago says. “Just keeping cameras, making sure people have cameras, making sure they have access to computers, is a challenge.” And not every piece of equipment is suitable. "We’re trying to set people up so they can work. It needs to be a SLR camera that people can actually shoot an assignment with.”
Like many nonprofits that were in Haiti immediately after the quake, FotoKonbit benefitted from the worldwide attention the country received, Arago says. It received a number of grants to execute photography exhibits and workshops it staged in the camps and the Haitian countryside. But over time, such funding became increasingly scarce. These days, the organization relies mostly on donations and the occasional grant, like one it recently received to conduct a summer photography program for teenagers and young adults in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. FotoKonbit has also partnered with Sant La Neighborhood Center, another Miami organization working in the Haitian community, to provide after-school photography classes.
FotoKonbit's newest initiative, Foto Studio Mobil, also recently received support from the Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (Knowledge and Freedom Foundation) in Haiti. The organization, run by former Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis, is supported by philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Institute.
“If I had the funding, I would just be doing this all of the time,” says Arago, who lives in Haiti and freelances while running FotoKonbit. “I would be strengthening programs and perhaps even looking at building new ones in Haiti. I would have our strongest students have their own programs.”
In addition to grants, the organization also relies on community partnerships. “We have to work where we have strong partnerships so that people could support us, give us a place to stay,” Arago says.
One such partnership is with Le Centre d’art in Port-au-Prince. In 2015, FotoKonbit partnered with the arts organization to build a digital art center. With the Centre d’art attracting students from across the visual arts paradigm, those interested in photography are taught by FotoKonbit’s professionals. Aragom, for example, teaches the history of photography, while Frederic Dupoux teaches the technical aspects of the craft.
“Most of the times, my challenge is really teaching these students how to use the computer,” says Dupoux, who teaches students how to use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom for photographers. “That is the hardest challenge. Once I get them acquainted with how to use a mouse and keyboard, it’s a breeze.”
Dupoux finds it gratifying to be able to groom Haiti’s next generation of photographers.
“Here in Haiti, people have only a few career choices,” Dupoux says. “They think you have to be a doctor, engineer, or lawyer. Being a photographer is not really in that realm. With FotoKonbit, we’ve been teaching and showing people that there are other things that you could be doing in your life as a career than those other paths.”
Dupoux says most of the photographers he mentors are like Saint Fleur, the FotoKonbit member who just a few years ago had never even owned a camera. They are mostly in their 20s and looking for alternative career paths. His greatest satisfaction, Dupoux says, comes when he sees a once-inexperienced student like Saint Fleur go on to a photography career.
“We have one in Camp Perrin and he’s the only photographer,” says Dupoux, referring to another southern Haitan city. “He’s documenting every event, whether it’s a wedding, baptism, or someone coming to visit. He has made a career out of it and it’s really eye-opening to see how people who had no idea they could make a life with this, do so.”
Phalonne Pierre Louis is an up-and-coming FotoKonbit member. A sociology and business administration major at a Port-au-Prince university, Pierre Louis is “someone who is ready to go,” Arago says. “She’s really one of our best photographers.”
Pierre Louis says that since she's been a member of FotoKonbit, she’s become more aware of her surroundings and more vocal about the inequality she sees. She uses her lens to show the daily struggle of life in Haiti.
“I am always thinking about the problems in society, and how to illustrate them,” she says, crediting FotoKonbit for helping her become “more confident and socially-conscious.”
The organizers estimate that FotoKonbit has worked in nearly a dozen different communities across Haiti, as well as conducted workshops in Miami and Brooklyn. Students’ photographs—which are sometimes sold, and the profit returned to the students—have exhibited in Miami, New Jersey, Houston, Paris, Port-au-Prince, and Cap-Haitien. There is a permanent exhibition wall at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, for example, filled with images taken by FotoKonbit students.
One early project that Arago remembers involved an exhibit supported by the State Department. The project involved those displaced by the earthquake, documenting the effectiveness of aid in their tent communities.
“I remember latrines, I remember water issues,” Arago says, recalling Haitians' frustrations with the much-criticized assistance. “A lot of people photographed holes [in the tents]. Somebody photographed their sister crying.”
But there are also happier moments, such as in 2014 when National Geographic Magazine gave a grant for FotoKonbit students to travel across Haiti to illustrate the story, “Showing Haiti on its Own Terms.”
It was the first time, Arago and Theard say, that the magazine published work that was made by non-professional photographers who were all Haitian.
“That was an amazing opportunity,” Arago says. “One of the most amazing parts of it was some of the students getting to see parts of Haiti that they hadn’t seen.”
Adds Theard, “That was unprecedented. And it was our little organization that was able to say this is an alternative paradigm. We’ve had these really wonderful moments to say we’re doing the work, we are growing.”
One such moment came again in 2018. Again it was a call from National Geographic, which this time wanted one of the FotoKonbit’s members to photograph Avenue Martin Luther King in Port-au-Prince as part of an issue looking at streets around the world bearing the civil rights leader’s name.
The photography honor went to Philomène Joseph, a high-school student who through her photography, has been able to pay her school fees.
“Some of them have done amazing work,” Arago says of the FotoKonbit photographers. “The types of images that you see from some of our students working in their communities is probably something that I would have never gotten or another foreigner, or even another Haitian who is not from the community.”
Arago says when she and her co-founders launched FotoKonbit back in 2010, they thought about where they wanted to work.
“We knew we didn’t want to come in and do these projects where you are there for a week in someone’s life and then you are gone,” she says. “We wanted to have relationships.”
Those relations today have evolved into not only new opportunities for some of the members but for FotoKonbit itself. Recently, Arago, accompanied by four FotoKonbit members and Frederic Dupoux, traveled to Tessert, Saint Fleur’s hometown in southeastern Haiti. She had chosen the village to launch the mobile photo studio, which is intended to help create a big body of work that serves as a traveling album, displaying images from the different communities the mobile studio visits.
Watching the students handle themselves with the camera and interview techniques impressed her. “My proudest moment is seeing people succeed; seeing Phalonne become a really solid photographer; seeing Jean Paul," says Arago. "I knew him when he was a kid; now he’s able to talk and express himself using a camera.”
To learn more, including how you can support the organization's mission, visit the FotoKonbit website.