Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Boy I'll Never Forget

Photo: A boy and his sister in Port Au Prince, Haiti.

"There are always two people in every photograph, the subject and the photographer." -Ansel Adams

It has been one month since I walked the streets of Port Au Prince with my camera. A month ago today, I ventured into the heart of darkness, of devastation and human suffering. So today, I went through my photo's, and there was one that instantly stood out. Here is the story of the one depicted above:

The Reason

When the earthquake first struck, within hours I was asked by news agencies from around the world if I'd be interested in going. Instantly, I weighed my options. I wasn't concerned about the money they'd pay me or the safety of my team--nor was I overly scared of being in danger. At the time, CNN had choppered in Anderson Cooper a few hours earlier, so I knew I'd be in the forefront of this coverage. It was an assignment few photogs would turn away. But there was something in me that held me back. Something that, to this day, I cannot explain. Maybe I was afraid of what I'd see. Perhaps, terrified of what I'd come back with.

Kindly, I declined and waited for the dust to settle. I wanted to see how long the media would stay before something else made headlines.

Three months later, after all the Anderson Coopers and Wolf Blitzer's had left, I decided to go to Haiti as a volunteer photographer for various non-profits. It was the best decision I have ever made.

As a photographer, there comes a time in my life when I start to question the purpose of my work, the reason why I do what I do--and ultimately, when one thinks about it, it also becomes the reason why I am the person I am today. My work depicts who I am and becomes my only reason.

I went to Haiti without deadlines, with no real agenda or editors screaming for my work. I went there for myself--to tell stories that mattered to me most and to fill a need for the organizations that would use my photo's to serve causes I believed in. For the first time in a long time, I no longer felt guilty while shooting the plight of those who suffer. I felt like someone serving a purpose--someone who, without any medical knowledge or life saving abilities, was just as important as those who did have that gift.

The Boy I'll Never Forget

Walking through a crowded refugee camp, I decided to break away from my group and ventured off on my own. I came upon an area of the camp most quiet--where the wind blew card board boxes away without anyone chasing after it for shelter. Sometimes, the best photo's are found when no one is around. So I kept walking.

Turning the corner, I noticed a boy sitting on a red chair. He was facing the other way and didn't see me coming. At that very moment, I thought to myself I had found the perfect shot: a lonely boy sitting by himself with rows of tents in the background. I snapped a few frames--and instantly, he heard my shutter flipping and turned to look directly into my lens. That was when I had lost my breath.

It was one of those moments in my life when the world had suddenly stopped. Moments when, through my lens, I'd blink uncontrollably trying to dictate what I was seeing.

Through my viewfinder, I saw flies hovering around his face, in his mouth, his nose, eyes and ears. For a brief moment, my mind didn't see the boy--but just flies like vultures consuming him--alive. (Click on image above to enlarge and you will see).

I froze and put my camera down. I stood there looking at him and nearly cried. A few seconds later his sister came behind him. They looked back at me and waved. And as soon as I waved back, the boy broke into the biggest smile I had ever seen. Flies entered his mouth.

With my heart wrenching, I managed to pull myself together to snap one frame.

That night, laying in my tent, his image played back in my dreams. I couldn't help but to wonder how much I had impacted his life in order for him to smile like that. Despite his condition--with flies in his mouth, he smiled at me--and because of that, I couldn't come to terms with myself for taking that picture--for being there at that moment. I think I cried myself to sleep that night.



I'm sorry, but I can no longer write this post. I don't know why this image has haunted me so much since my return. I thought that by going to Haiti without deadlines and without being paid would make my heart feel better at night--but it hasn't. No matter how I work, the images that I capture still plays with my head. There's something beautiful about his smile--yet at the same time it haunts me. Sometimes, I wish I was never there for him to see me. Why? I'd like to know what you think.

Thank you.


Dan said...

Oh man, Ron...that weighs heavy on my heart. When I look at that photo and TRY to ignore your amazing words, I'm struck by the resilience of the human spirit and this little boy in particular. Amazing image. It is, indeed, haunting....

Adajah Fran├žois said...

It s amazing and there s a lot of boys and girls like them who need love, affection. thanks for being in Haiti.

Vera said...

What you could do, Ron, is spin this around and send a positive thought out to the little boy that he be well in life. That it was your privilege to capture him on film so we also can be made aware of such difficult living conditions, that hopefully we all will count our blessings, that this child's smile lit the day despite his discomforts. That there is a reason why things are as they are, which includes the reason why you were there to capture that particular moment. It is sometimes hard being on the coal-face of life, and sending blessings to you.

Lorna said...

You know Ron, I see the expression on that little boy's face, and he seems to be saying "Hey! It's okay man, I'm okay, and so are you".

He does not seem to be judging you, or his situation in any way. For me, anyway, he encapsulates the teachings I've been hearing, about accepting this moment just as it is. And since he is in a sense powerless to change it, what else is there? I do not see him suffering. He may have pain, but he doesn't seem to be suffering for it.

What I see is you wishing with all your heart that you could change his situation for him somehow, and all those in his shoes. But what if he is okay with it?

What if deep down you are afraid that you too could be him, somewhere in time? Is it possible these are your own feelings coming up, and that maybe you would not be okay with life in his shoes?

I wasn't there, you and he and his sister were, and I don't know how on earth I'd be okay with the situation if it were me--but I hope that I would get to that place if I needed to. He seems to have achieved that, and that makes him a hero in my book.

Peace, my big-hearted friend.

Deboshree said...

That boy has a big heart Ron. Even though he is suffering, he is happy to know that he can make you feel welcome and wanted.

Ask yourself sweetheart. Deep down, you know why it haunts you. 'Coz you thought of taking the perfect shot and then you saw what the boy was going through. It must've made you feel guilty like hell. And his smiling at you was the last straw.
It's okay babe. You were doing what you were supposed to do and he was doing what he wanted to do. Smile at you.
Ron,smile at this memory thinking how strong the human spirit can look above your own suffering and learn to smile at others through your pain. Just remember that about him.
You've got a big heart Ron and we're here with you, to understand you as best as we can and give you all the love and support.
Keep him in your memory as the boy who cared.

Much love,

Ava said...

You’ve made the boy smile and I think that counts for something truly meaningful.

In Hong Kong, people don’t say hello or smile to strangers (like you do in Midland, for example). In the supermarket, cashiers/tellers were told to say “how are you” when a customer approaches, but they won't make eye contact nor they expect anyone to answer. One day, when I was checking out, the cashier asked me a standard question (and expected a standard answer with no eye-contact or facial expression), I looked at her and replied politely with a big smile. In that one moment, I saw that she was touched, impressed, surprised and very appreciative of my friendly gesture. What I’m trying to say is that when life is tough and when people in general are unhappy, a smile from a stranger can make a huge difference.

Going back to the little boy in your photo, may be it was an instinct for him to smile at a camera, or may be he loved having more people around (you said it was the most quiet area). Or may be he saw hopes from your visit -- and that can be realized too because what you did in Haiti is going to make some positive changes. No matter how, you’ve made him smile – that already is one positive change. Thank you for doing that.

canadasue said...

oh, Ron... gentle peace be yours and his...