Everyone recognizes this style of Esther Havens‘ shots that she calls the “hero shot.” This is the assistant part of my job when I play human light stand. I have my very own hero shot from Haiti on my About page — swoon. I interviewed Antoinette through Bill Clinton’s translator (Thanks, Troy Livesay!) in her home in Jerusalem, a housing development that displaced people were moved to after the earthquake without access to water or plumbing. Some homes were just made of emergency tarps from the UN. As I look back on my first stuff, I was anxious to misinterpret or assign motivations to anyone in Haiti. People were overexposed and exhausted and many literally turned away from Esther’s camera. I wanted to tell stories and I didn’t want to deify, patronize or make caricatures. It’s tough to balance. In telling stories of the vulnerable, you inevitably filter them through your own biases, but you should not romanticize their poverty or include “other” language that separates. Find what you have in common, what you both love, and start there.
Esther takes beautiful photos that capture people’s hope and dignity. You can do the same in stories. My main goal is to tell stories the subjects would be proud of, that I would feel comfortable reading aloud to them.
In the Caribbean nation of Haiti, the January 2010 earthquake killed 220,000 people and displaced 1.3 million others. For Antoinette, the earthquake brought her Cite Soleil house crumbling down on her, nearly crushing her and her unborn baby. She got out from under the rubble and made it to a government hospital where staff twice tried and failed to amputate her lower leg. Doctors aboard the US Naval ship Comfort were finally able to remove her leg — and deliver her son.
As traumatic as this birth experience was, it was the first time Antoinette gave birth with medical care. She delivered her other five children at home on her own. To her, giving birth alone is a sign of strength. While she might have been strong, she was never educated on how to birth or raise a child. Her first child, a daughter, died of diarrhea in her first year of life. Under normal circumstances, a baby born alive in Haiti is cause for celebration. In the aftermath of the earthquake, it was nothing short of a miracle.
The Comfort ship staff introduced her to Heartline, an organization operating in Haiti for the past decade. Heartline not only treated her injuries, but also helped her to heal and rebuild her life with a prosthetic leg and physical therapy. Additionally, Antoinette still attends Heartline’s early childhood classes more than a year after the earthquake, where she learns the importance of breastfeeding and hygiene. Now 35, she lives in a yellow house that Heartline purchased for her and her family in Jerusalem, a settlement just outside Port Au Prince. Her 14-month-old son, Aiden, crawls around the floor as she cleans and cooks for her family. Life is back to normal now, in some ways better than before the earthquake thanks to Heartline, but normal life in Haiti is rarely easy.
Antoinette is not afraid because she has God with her. Her faith is not untested; she has not been delivered from her troubles. Her family doesn’t eat every day. Her husband has a wheelbarrow for hire, but can’t always find work. When he does, he makes $1 USD a day. While her new house is safer in an area with less crime than the dense tent cities, the remote settlement is difficult to navigate for a woman still getting used to walking with a prosthetic leg. Nevertheless, she’s thankful that she’s alive, and that Aiden’s life was saved. She hopes that God will touch her children’s lives, and that they can stay in school.