Thursday, February 3, 2011

Local photographer finds inspiration among the hopeless in Haiti

Arts & Entertainment
Jan 12, 2011, Stoney Creek News

It is not a place anyone would choose for a pleasure trip, but Stoney Creek resident Jay Perry says his recent visit to Haiti was the best experience of his life.
The unhappy history of Haiti begins in 1492 with its discovery by Christopher Columbus and the rapid near extermination of its original inhabitants by conquering Spaniards and goes downhill from there. The island has remained mired in poverty since a slave rebellion drove the French from the island in 1804, with violent political instability interrupted only by a harsh and exploitive 17- year U.S. occupation in the early part of the 20th century and the brutal reign of terror and corruption under the Duvaliers from 1957 to 1986.
The country is by far the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.  United Nations troops, including Canadian soldiers, have been trying to keep order in the country since 2004 as it struggles to establish an effective and democratic government. In January 2010, the capital of Port-au-Prince was leveled by a massive earthquake that caused heavy damage and killed tens of thousands of people throughout the country. A subsequent ongoing cholera epidemic has killed thousands more.
Given all that, one can understand Perry’s surprise at the joy he found manifested in the people he met when he traveled to Haiti in November with a relief organization.
“We take so much for granted here that they don’t take for granted – people there are happy just to be alive, just to have their families…I saw more happy people in Haiti than I have in Canada.”
A photographer by trade, Perry, 28, had signed up with a Hamilton-based Christian missionary relief organization, The Joy and Hope of Haiti, to go to the impoverished nation and help build schools. Initially, he had no intention of even bringing his cameras with him, wanting to devote his time to helping out, but when trip organizers found out how he made his living, they convinced him to take some pictures on their behalf.
Joy and Hope of Haiti works with Starfish Kids, an evangelical Christian charity group that is part of the One Mission Society. Perry spent much of his time in Haiti visiting most of the 40 schools in which the group has a role, taking photos of the students and helping out. Starfish Kids is involved with about 40 religious schools in Haiti, paying a portion of sponsored students’ tuition and providing them with shoes, school books, and breakfast.
Perry believes a lack of education is chief among the root causes of poverty in Haiti.  He said he and his fellow Canadian aid workers were met with a mixed reaction at first. While some greeted them with smiles and waves, other shouted obscenities at them, believing that because they were Caucasian, they were with the United Nations, which many Haitians hold responsible for the cholera outbreak that began last year.
Despite such suspicion, Perry said as soon as his camera came out he was instantly the most popular person around. At all of the schools he visited, he was mobbed by children wanting to be photographed. 
“The most rewarding part was seeing the expression on the kids’ faces when I showed them their photo in the viewfinder. They absolutely loved it…After numerous school visits and showing the kids their photos, I finally asked someone why the kids got so excited to see their photo. They told me that it was probably the first time they had ever seen themselves. That they don’t own a mirror and the only image they have ever caught of them selves was a faint reflection in a dirty window. Can you imagine? Not knowing what you look like until you’re five or six?”
In some of the schools the floor was gravel and the roof was a tarp with chalkboards to separate the classes. Perry said the way the Haitians lived happily without material possessions was inspirational to him. 
“We visited this place called Happiness Alley – it’s one of the poorest places in the country and I got some of my best pictures there. The houses were just sort of put together with whatever people could find, bamboo, tarps. There was garbage everywhere.  Kids were running barefoot through the garbage and there were wild goats, pigs and dogs eating the garbage, awful smell and yet the one thing that will stick in my head forever are the smiles on the kids faces.  They had nothing. They were playing in garbage.  They were dressed in the only dirty clothes they had and somehow managed not to care. They knew no different and were just happy to be alive. It was one of the most moving experiences for me.”
Visits to the schools became impossible a few days after Perry arrived due to rioting and roving gangs angry about the cholera outbreak and blaming the UN.  Perry said they couldn’t leave their lodgings in Cap-Haiten after dark, but that he didn’t find it any scarier than downtown Hamilton. The only time he was scared was when he and his colleagues were confronted by a group carrying machetes that screamed obscenities at them believing that they were with the UN. Thankfully, their Haitian guide and a local pastor were able to talk them out of their trouble. 
As the Nov. 28 election drew closer, the riots got worse and even leaving the country became difficult.  As travel arrangements changed constantly, Perry and the rest of his contingent worked at painting a technical school with local workers until they could get a plane out of Cap-Haiten to Port-au- Prince and then to the United States. Perry said they rode in the back of a covered truck to the airport and did their best to stay out of sight as they passed cars burning on the roadside.
While he has plenty of photos that show the desperate situation in Haiti, Perry said that there is more than enough negative stories in the press about the country and he wanted to capture the smiles and kids having fun.
“The problems there are so severe compared to the life we have, but they don’t know our life, so these severe problems are just everyday life for them and somehow they find joy in it, “ said Perry.
An exhibit of some of the 1,500 photos Perry shot in Haiti will be on display for the month of February at 220, a clothing store at King and Caroline streets. and the store will also be selling limited edition Tshirts with one of his photographs on them to help raise money for Starfish Kids.  In March, Perry will be posting many of his photos on his website at
“It was by far the greatest experience I’ve ever had and I’d go back in a second,” said Perry, who hopes to return to Haiti someday soon with prints of his photos to distribute to the subjects.

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