Tuesday, March 30, 2010

When The Wind Howls, I Hear Their Cries

Photo by: Paul Emanuel / City Soleil, Haiti.

Sorry. I've been in hiding lately. Not from anything or anyone, of course, but mainly from myself--my own emotions after returning from a land left raveled by nature, scorched and scathed by a world of uncertainty.

I don't know what happened, really, but upon returning, I felt the need to disconnect--to find myself again and live life upon a world in which I could call my own. Being in Haiti was tough. Mentally and physically, it left me charred to my core, reducing every bit of hope I had had for humanity to nothing more than dust--a mere fragment of a dream. There are moments in life when you find hope, when you see it in your eyes and you savour it for every thing it's worth. Then, sometimes, when the truth is so real--so true and trivial, there's no avoiding what horrible things may come. That's what it was like for me in Haiti. By the time I had left, I had lost hope for the people who continue to suffer. I saw too much to fathom, too little to hope--any longer.

It scared me. I spent nights sitting up in my tent wondering what was wrong with me. I wanted to cry but I couldn't. I wanted to scream, but didn't. The feeling of helplessness ripped away at the very fibre that made me whole. I no longer felt good at what I was doing. It got to the point when I couldn't shoot any longer--and for the last few days in Haiti, I kept my camera pointed down. There was nothing more I could shoot.

Returning home, friends would ask me how it went. I'd turn to them--and sometimes, I didn't have to say a word--for they had already known--just from the look in my eyes. Thank you, friends, for understanding.

I've spent days unpacking and re-packing, going over every little piece of equipment I had brought to Haiti and making sure it was still in tact. But in the midst of inspection, I realized that I needed to do the same to not just my equipment, but also to myself--to look deep into my very own soul and see if I am the same as I had left. In retrospect, I am not. I don't think I will ever be the same again.

Lately, I've been lost for words--not really knowing where to begin or even why. Taking deep breaths, I feel my chest convolving in disarray, my heart beating in disbelief that I am here, safe, fed, and sheltered. Sometimes it's guilt. Other times, I'm just truly thankful. There's an imbalance in me that can never be defined--nor can it be felt unless you've been there yourself.

Because every time I see a tent I am reminded of Haiti. When the rain falls, I think of them. When the sun rises, I pray for them. When the wind howls, I hear their cries.

Blogger Note: I am currently on foreign assignment in Kuwait City, Kuwait.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Dispatches: Photog In Peril

Photo by D2 Photography

There’s a welcoming breeze tonight. Gentle and calm, just enough to brush the whiskers of your arm—cool and collective. In my tent, I’m typing to you via a satellite internet connection from the safe house I’m staying at. Communication is slow, banks are closed, grocery stores are merely open long enough to keep items in stock from those who can afford to shop. All the roads are congested with traffic. Debris from fallen buildings block certain intersections from being entered. It’s chaotic here, to say the least. Water is scarce. Electricity is only available to certain parts of the city, intermittently.

Every minute I’m here I become closer to those I meet. They’re no longer strangers to me anymore. We connect. We talk and laugh. But when I’m alone, I realize that the closer I get, the harder it becomes for me to be here. And obviously, the harder it becomes for me to leave them behind. Yet, having been away from home for so long now leaves me yearning for a warm shower, clean clothes, and a goodnight sleep. It’s a bitter sweet feeling.

I’ve been here for a week now—and to be quite honest, I don’t think I can handle much more of the emotional pain that comes with this assignment. Everywhere I turn there’s people suffering, children running naked, crowds rushing for rations being handed out. Seeing tents remind me of my time as a refugee. Listening to the unfamiliar language—yet universal motions of people begging tears me to pieces.

And I don’t know why it’s bothering me so much this time. I’ve been in situations like this many times before—but as I’m typing this, I’ve come to realize that perhaps it’s because I can relate to them so much more than I ever could in other places. And it hurts. Selfish, maybe. But I’ve thought about it long and hard—and you know what, despite the lens before me, I’m human, too. When I put my head down at night, it’s hard for me to fall asleep—to find closer to my day—which, some nights, I don’t think there ever will be.

For the past few days I’ve been in and out of City Soleil, a part of Port au Prince that has been forgotten by the outside world. I’ve got amazing access—and an equally amazing story to cinematically put together. Truth-searching is hard—especially when the truth hurts. But thankfully, I have you—my dear readers and friends who have sent me countless emails and messages via Facebook. Your words of encouragement mean the world to me. You remind me of my calling and my obligation to the art I have inherited. I am forever indebted to you.

I have two more days here before heading home for some much needed rest—and then, after a few days, I’m off again to my next destination: Kuwait.

I will write again soon. I hope all is well. Please take care of yourself—and each other.

Blogger Note: For up to the minute status updates and to see some photo's from Haiti, join me on Facebook.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Dispatches: City Soliel

Cell Phone Photo: Driving through City Soleil, March 11, 2010

I'm emotionally drained, physically exhausted. Too tired to think, too weak to talk. The day went by fast. Too many thoughts, too little time.

I'm not going to explain to you the disaster, nor am I going to show you images of people suffering. Truth is, I'm sick of seeing it on mainstream media, and I'm sure you are too. That's not why I came here.

I came here to tell stories, to bring meaning to suffering, to give a voice to those who are muted by the few who are overly vocal.

Part of my job involves truth-searching, simply by walking the beat of a journalist. On days like today, I'd scour certain areas without a camera and arm myself with nothing more than a pen and note pad. People look at me eye to eye. We talk--human to human, and through words, I'd develop my story and determine what I shoot and how I shoot it.

In Haiti, there's a section of Port au Prince called City Soleil (Sun City, pronounced 'Solay'). Heavily fortified for decades by gangs and guns, few people enter this area and make it out alive. Known by the international community as one of the world's most dangerous slums, City Soleil is currently home to thousands of Haitians who live in the most sordid conditions humans can fathom. The United Nations security team dare not enter this part of the city. Instead, they guard the perimeter and only enter when foreign nationals are caught between the lines.

I entered City Soleil yesterday. Driving through in our un-marked pick-up truck, people stared at me thru my window, some waved, children smiled. I decided to venture there because no one would. Aid groups ignore this area. Journalists can't find the ratings to justify such stories to be covered. So there I was.

I was guided by a local who knows the area well. He's young, trusted, and accepted. A few times, we had to stop on the side of the road so he could call his people a few blocks up--and we'd wait. When all was clear, we proceeded.

When you first get to Haiti, you're blown away by the number of tents scattered throughout the cities. Companies like Coleman donate their brands through aid groups for distribution--and like a finely decorated store window, you'd pass by a parade of logos--as far as the eye can see. But sadly, in City Soleil, the world has strangely forgotten about their existence. So instead of water-proof tarps with double layered sun resistency and break-proof poles, they use thin bed sheets that are riddled with holes, sticks and stones to hold everything together, and with hope and prayer, they call it home.

Walking through some of the hardest hit areas, you can smell the scent of human waste and rotting garbage. It's enough to make you vommit--but through respect, you hold it in.

I couldn't sleep last night. Every time I closed my eyes I saw their blinding stares, the linen walls they call home and the children that called me 'friend.' Laying there alone in my tent, I couldn't help but to remember the time when I too lived within linen walls--when as a refugee, I too lived in tents that were held together with nothing more than a string of hope.

I'm going back to City Soleil. It's a story I need to tell and capture with my lens.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dispatches: Haiti Flight 1291

Photo: Passengers on board flight 1291 try to get a glimpse of Port Au Prince from the air as the plane slowly descends.

At 35,000 feet, the plane fell silent. The hum of a jet engine filled the cabin as children slept, mothers and fathers sat there staring into the abyss as if the seat in front of them held their fortune. To my left, a lady sat there twitching her thumb, head held low—neither asleep nor really awake. Rays of light spilled through the windows, glistened off her dark—velvet skin, casting a reflective stroke of light off the contours of her face.

Every now and then I’d catch her peeking at my watch, wondering how much longer until we land. The plane would veer left, then slightly right, slowly descend and gradually climb again. She’d turn to her left, look out the window and realize that we’ve yet to push past the clouds that enveloped our plane. A few minutes later, she’d return her eyes to my watch—counting every second that went by.

Flight 1291 wasn’t just another flight for me—and neither was it for the 200 or so Haitians returning home for the first time after the quake. For Silvia, this was her first trip back since leaving as a child.

Looking into her eyes, I can see her fear, sorrow and the unknown. Asked if she was excited to finally be home, she softly replied, “no,” paused, and silently turned her head the other way.

Flight attendants passed out snack-boxes of cookies and juice, but few had even opened their box. Looking over to Silvia, I saw her packing hers away—perhaps saving it for a loved one.

It’s hard to explain the emotions on flight 1291. Perhaps, it’s unexplainable. But sitting there, looking at Silvia, listening to the deafening hum of utter silence, every emotion I had ever felt in my life felt incomparable to that of hers.

Sometimes, words just can't explain.

Blogger Note: I'm currently safe in Port Au Prince. My team and I are staying at a safe house, but due to the structural damage of this building, we're forced to sleep in tents in the compound. The whole 2nd floor is gone, and the rubble is thrown all over. Driving to the safe house, tents can be seen as far as the eye can see. Tomorrow morning I will venture into the epicenter of the quake. For status updates and mobile picture uploads, please feel free to add me on Facebook.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Photo Essay: Santa Rosa de Copan

"Baby Fan"

"Forever Young"

"Street Fighter"


"Growing Old"

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Smile of Hope

Photo: All smiles for Christian as he is being fitted for a prosthetic limb.
Current Location: Santa Rosa, Honduras

His name is Christian David Flores--and to me, he's my angel.

Every now and then my camera takes me to places that take my breath away, digs deep into the depths of my soul and leaves me speechless. There are times when I thought I'd never see anything more beautiful, that the bounty before me is served on a silver platter, that God has given me more than I'd ever asked for. Through my lens, I've seen the Pyramids of Egypt, the jungles of Borneo and even the sprawling walls of China's greats--and at those very moments, I'd indulge in sacred beauty. Then, on the brink of salvation, when it becomes all too prevalent, he has a notion of reminding me how beauty is derived, how ultimately, it is not the destination that defines beauty, nor do mountains, rivers and water falls--but through light, he guides me, and somehow, I meet people who confirms his acclamation.

Christian is five years old. When asked what he wanted to become when he gets older, he looked up at me, gave the biggest smile I had ever seen, and in a sweet little voice, he said in Spanish: "I want to become a coffee drinker." We laughed, he jumped in joy with hands in the air, and within seconds, I saw in him something different--something I haven't seen in a long, long time. I saw hope.

Born with one leg, Christian is a symbol of beauty, of love, of humanity and the human spirit. With the help of a prosthesis, he runs when other his age can barely walk up-hill in his village. He jumps and climbs--and like all children, his laughter fills your heart with warmth. Asked what his favorite sport is, he replied, "soccer."

Challenging me to a game of one-on-one, in Spanish, he'd speak words I couldn't understand. All I did was nod and smile--which in return, he nodded and laughed. And so we'd play, kicking the ball back and forth--and when he pointed to his forehead, it meant he wanted to head-butt the ball. For a while, all my worries were gone--my aches and pains from constant travel had vanished, and like a child again, I laughed for no real reason--except at the fact that someone special was laughing with me.

Walking into his bedroom, a small Honduran soccer jersey hung over his bed. With walls made of mud, it was probably the most prized possession in his home. Looking down, I noticed a little teddy bear sitting by his pillow. "You still sleep with a teddy?" I jokingly asked. He nodded and smiled. Grabbing my hand, he showed me the prosthetic limb that he designed for his teddy bear. And just like his, he could put it on and take it off. "Mi amigo," he said. At that very moment, I merely cried.

That night, I went to bed in my hotel room realizing how lucky I am to have met him. I am forever thankful that there are people like little Christian David Flores in this world.