Capturing Hope in Haiti
Jeremy Cowart is a photographer based out of Nashville, Tenn., who has worked with everyone from Switchfoot to Imogen Heap, and even done promo shots for TV shows like Ruby and editorial spots for charity: water. After seeing images coming out of Haiti after the earthquake, he felt compelled to travel to the devastated country and take photos of the people. Over the course of the next several weeks, he’ll be releasing a photo a day that people can buy, with all proceeds going to A Home in Haiti. Here, he talks to us about what he saw, his hope for the photos and what surprised him most about the people in the earthquake-ravaged country.
What motivated you to do this project?
I was tired of seeing the same photos coming out of Haiti … dead bodies, destruction, statistics and numbers. That’s the message I was getting. Where were the people? Where were their voices and opinions? I was tired of hearing all the opinions of reporters. I wanted to let the people speak for themselves … literally.
What about the situation in Haiti inspired you/your passion?
The situation there is different. People say: “Well, there are other places in the world where people are starving and don’t have water.” While this is true, the situation in Haiti is so far worse. Think about it: At least in Africa, people still have a sense of schedule, a sense of family (even if it’s orphans with caretakers). Everything they know is normal to them and they’ve adjusted. In Haiti, within 30 seconds, lives were uprooted completely. They lost family. They lost electricity. They lost homes, food, water … every single thing in their lives was taken from them. It’s as extreme as it gets, and I’ve never seen anything like it in all my travels. I tell people it’s like experiencing every emotion at once: loss, devastation, shock, slivers of hope and laughter, confusion, perseverance, anger, deep sadness, desperation. Those are just a few emotions I both witnessed and experienced while I was there. I can’t imagine the range of emotions the people of Haiti must feel …
What surprised you the most about the situation in Haiti?
The hope and perseverance of the people. It doesn’t even make sense how hopeful they are. It’s a total paradigm shift to witness.
What advice would you give photographers covering such a devastating situation?
Be respectful, be respectful and be respectful. People there are extremely photographer-weary and for good reason. Photojournalists in natural disasters can become paparazzi-like. It’s a little freakish, actually. I didn’t want to just go without a good reason. In fact, I never took a single photo on this trip without spending at least 15 minutes with each person explaining to them what I was doing. They would often send me away after their portrait with a fist bump and they would say, “Respect.”
How difficult is it as someone who’s objectively capturing footage of Haiti to not get personally involved?
Well, it’s kind of easy for me. When I’m in work mode, I’m in work mode. Sometimes that’s a great thing, sometimes it’s a terrible thing. Had I gone to Haiti without a camera, it would have been a completely different trip, I think. But I had a deep purpose for this trip and knew this project could make a difference. So I was OK with pressing forward with my idea. There were times, though, when I put my camera aside and talked with people and played with kids. In fact, there was a ton of that. I’ll forever remember a lot of those conversations.
What’s your ultimate hope with the photo project?
The same thing as it was with my other project, Help-Portrait. I want to humanize people. I want to make them feel valued and that they are loved. It’s amazing that a camera can help do that. It’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned over the last few months. People doubt the idea all the time, but they’re proven wrong every time.
You can view Cowart’s Voices of Haiti photo essay and purchase prints here.