On January 12, 2010, a massive earthquake struck the Caribbean Republic of Haiti. With its epicenter located just 25 km west of Port-au-Prince, the effects were catastrophic. The capital suffered major damage, and the homes and lives of hundreds of thousands of Haitians were ruined.
American photographer Jeremy Cowart was one of the millions who watched the shocking events unfold on TV. But unlike most viewers, he decided to do something about it. He packed his clothes and equipment, and a couple of days later, he stepped off a plane in Port-au-Prince.
“It was like a war zone,” says Jeremy. “The sights, the smells, the sounds – everybody walking around in a state of confusion. It was pretty scary, to be honest.”
What stopped you from backing out?
“Well, once I saw all the destruction, I truly realized how much help all the people there would need. That actually helped me keep my focus. It made me feel as though what we had set out to do had a purpose.”
And what purpose was that?
“To humanize the events. To let people tell their own stories. To prevent them from becoming numbers in a news article. I mean, the news reports at the time were so sensational and focused on the catastrophe that the lives that had been affected were almost forgotten.”
Jeremy’s team took a different approach. Instead of just documenting the events from a distance, they approached the locals and asked them to write down their thoughts and feelings on a piece of rubble. Meanwhile, Jeremy unpacked his Canon 5D Mark II and his weatherworn Acute B2 600. Then he took the subjects’ portrait, holding their message in their hands, looking straight into the camera.
“I couldn’t have done it without the local guides I had with me,” says Jeremy. “They were the ones who persuaded people to participate. There were obviously a lot of photographers around, but most of them acted like devastation paparazzis, shooting people without even asking. So when the locals understood what we were trying to do, they got very excited. I believe they respected our efforts because we were giving them a voice.”
Jeremy and his small team wandered around Port-au-Prince for days, talking to people, listening and photographing. When he eventually boarded his flight home, he had an entire series of portraits – a series that he would title Voices of Haiti.
What surprises me about Voices of Haiti is that even though the portraits were taken in the midst of a disaster, the faces and the messages are quite optimistic.
“Yeah, that surprised me too. The people really held their chins up high. They were very resilient and determined to bounce back.”
What happened once you got back to the States? Did the project have the impact you hoped for?
“Well, I began publishing one image a day on my blog. This helped me raise some money. Then I got a call from the UN. They were organizing an event with leaders from all over the world during which they would pledge money to the Haitian people. They had seen my images, and they wanted to print them in a very, very large format and hang them along this long hallway that all of these leaders had to walk down. And as it turned out, they raised something like USD 10,000,000 that day.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy! I don’t know how much of an impact my images actually made, but I do know that the voices of the Haitian people were heard all the way to the very highest level of government. To me, that’s a pretty cool thing. Also, being able to take it all the way from me watching TV in my living room to creating something that got presented to world leaders – that’s pretty amazing too.”
Voices of Haiti was a success, and Jeremy soon had the opportunity to travel and tell the story behind his project. During one of these journeys, he met a girl named Nathalie, who had recently filmed a documentary about the tragic events in Rwanda. The two started talking, and pretty soon new ideas took form. These ideas resulted in the recently published Voices of Reconciliation, which can be considered a continuation of the Voices of Haiti project. Want the read that story and see those images too? Leave a comment or drop us an email.
Written by Fredrik Franzén
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