After finishing up a gardening project in November 2010 in New Orleans’ 9th ward, Melissa Schilling, a photographer with a master’s degree in soil science, found herself looking down the barrel of free time — not something she was used to having.
When she came upon an article in the New York Times about response efforts to the devastating earthquake in Haiti earlier that year, something sparked in her.
“I thought the most important quote to come out of article was that this woman felt like she was screaming into the wind,” Melissa recalled, “the largest non-profit response in history… but you’re still screaming into the wind.”
Over the course of the next 10 weeks Melissa flew into action, collecting five artist friends and $10,000 in cash and art supplies. By January 2011, one year after the earthquake, Melissa found herself in Haiti for the first time, painting murals and making art with local children.
Some of the kids had never held a paintbrush before. Yet for a brief moment, amongst their peers and the artist-teachers, the kids had the opportunity to be children. They could paint instead of worry about their families — or lack thereof.
In 2013, a few years into the now successful Project HOPE Art program, Melissa decided to bring a couple dozen hand-me-down cameras and see what the kids could do in terms of capturing their lives in Port Au Prince. What resulted was a very candid, sometimes beautifully haphazard body of images.
The abundance of cameras in the United States means we frequently take our ability to document and share segments of our lives totally for granted. My two-year-old cousin can touch her way through her mom’s iPhone camera with ease. I have 500 photos of myself on Facebook, some of my friends have upwards of 2,000. Melissa told me about the moment she put the cameras in the kid’s hands, “To see something that somebody else didn’t want here, and to see somebody’s face light up like it was the most magical gift — and it’s this 8-year-old point and shoot — it’s really amazing.”
Most of the kids in the program come to them through orphanages or the Ti Kay Clinic, which treats patients with TB and HIV. For the Project HOPE kids, having a camera was a major privilege, as is pleasurably reflected in their photos. Family members lined up against foliage and little ones posturing for the novelty of the lens.
As I look at the photos again, I am moved by the honesty in the expressions of the faces captured. In one photo a young girl in a brightly patterned dress lays out on the couch as if she were talking to her therapist. Her head is tilted toward us and she just looks so serious, like a tiny adult. Melissa puts it succinctly, “Children are very mature in Haiti … they have more daily life responsibilities.”
There’s more subtle magic here: three babies on a stoop just looking straight at you; a younger woman wrangling an older woman’s hair into tidy plaits; eyes alit with glee peering through a concrete coffer. These are quotidian moments captured without exploitation. Occasionally formally sort of uninteresting, I think — but it absolutely doesn’t matter.
I’m just stoked to be reminded what a powerful tool the camera is.
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