As part of our Frequent Flyer series, we post follow up stories from previously spotlighted travelers. Simon is a professional photographer that has traveled extensively; visiting intriguing locations like Morocco, Ireland, Borneo, and New Zealand to name a few. In his previous feature, he shared his experiences traveling throughout Ireland, documenting its beautiful landscapes and long-standing traditions. Now he's back to shed light on the beauty that exists within Haiti and what he thinks other visitors can do to contribute to the country's economic redevelopment.
What sparked your interest to visit Haiti? How did your initial trip impact you?
Haiti had been on my radar for several years. One of my friends is the founder of Cine Institute, located in Jacmel, and had been visiting the country for about 25 years. It was through his documentaries that I was first exposed to Haitian culture. My first experience with Haiti was after the 2010 earthquake. Two of my friends and I decided to pool together our resources to help out in any way possible, so we organized a fundraiser in New York City. We then flew into the Dominican Republic and loaded a 4x4 truck with all the supplies we could carry: medical supplies, food & fuel, clothes, and mosquito nets. We originally planned on getting to Port au Prince, but ended up staying in the north around Cap Hatien and Milot, providing aid to doctors, hospitals and NGO’s.
Along with the miscellaneous supplies, we also brought along 20 or so soccer balls. Wherever went, whether it was a small village or community soccer field, we would stop to play a quick game and give away the ball to the kids once we left. It was usually 30 minutes of smiles & laughter for all of us. Needless to say, traveling through Haiti under these circumstances really changed my life, and playing the beautiful game with those amazing kids opened a door to traveling back to Haiti. In 2011 I started a kid’s soccer program and tournament on Ile-a-Vache, a tiny island off the south west coast of Haiti. This year is the 5th Annual Ile-a-Vache Soccer Tournament, which will take place in July 2015.
How would you define Haitian culture? What do you love most about visiting Haiti?
Haitian culture is unique because it is an intoxicating mix of West African, French and Caribbean culture. The music, art, food, landscape and people all create an amazing tapestry of life. Aside from its beautiful cities and landscapes, what truly makes me love Haiti is the people I encounter. Their friendliness, ingenuity, perseverance, kindness and strength of character. It not only gives me a real perspective on life, but always leaves me with great memories, a big smile on my face and a lot of happiness in my heart whenever I hop back on that jet airliner on my returns to Brooklyn.
What has surprised you most about your experiences while visiting?
Well, there are plenty of surprises to be had in Haiti! Perhaps I’ve been fortunate during my travels there, in that I’ve been in the right places at the right time with the right people. Although I think the biggest surprise for me was the natural environment. We constantly hear through Western media about the landscape being very degraded by deforestation, and the land basically washing off into the Caribbean. I’m sure there are landscapes like that insome parts of Haiti, but the same is true of every country. During my trips I’ve seen some of the most beautiful landscapes that could rival anywhere in the world. Up North around Cap Hatien it’s very mountainous and lush. There is agriculture and charcoal production going on, but the landscape is not barren. On Ile-a-Vache, off the south-west coast of Haiti, the landscape has been taken care of by the locals for years. On the east side of this tiny island there is some of the most pristine mangrove swamps in the Caribbean. The rest is a mix of palm tree lined beaches and beautiful, manicured farmland.
What is your favorite approach to photography while in Haiti? Do you generally strike up a conversation with your subjects or just capture the moment?
When it comes to photographing the world around me, I use a lot of different tools – my iPhone5s, a point & shoot camera, my big old Nikon D3s, Polaroid cameras, video, old & new. I use whatever works for a specific moment because each tool comes with its own set of techniques for photographing your subjects and each subject requires a different approach.
In Haiti, lots of people have cell phones and are on some kind of social media, so taking photographs is something that happens all the time. However, I never just jump into a situation, cameras blazing, that’s a sure way to shut down any intimacy with your subject. Invariably I’ll spend some time talking to the person or group, that way a strong connection and story develop before the camera comes out. In this situation I’ll have my 24-70mm 2.8 lens on my camera. However, there are times where I don’t want to affect the moment, so I’ll use my 200-400mm to take pictures without the subject knowing.
Please share a little about your organization and its mission and impact within the community.
I am very fortunate to be connected with two very good non-profits, Soccer Recycle being one of them. Founder Linda Ford is a real gem and the hardest working soccer mum I know!! Her organization supplies me with all the soccer gear I take to Haiti , packing 50lb bags with a full team set, uniforms, cleats, balls, and pumps. I think we’ve outfitted at least 14 teams so far. The other non-profit I work with is called EDEM Foundation. This organization is local to Ile-a-Vache and was founded by Patrick Lucien, a Haitian currently living in Boston.
What recommendations and advice can you provide for travelers interested in exploring the country?
First decide how much adventure you want to have – a relaxing Caribbean holiday with rum punch on the beach and no worries OR a backpacking, slightly crazy, local transport kind of trip. The best would be to have a bit of both! In Port au Prince there are lots of different kinds of places to stay from family style auberge to 5 star hotels in Petionville. My favorite is the Hotel Oloffson which is a unique, old school kind of place. A little run down, but bags of character and on Thursday night, RAM plays their brand of psychedelic rock. Haiti also has some of the best beaches in the Caribbean, white sand and turquoise sea for a far as the eye can see. On Ile-a-Vache, a real pearl of the Antilles, there are two resorts, Port Morgan and Abaka Bay, which has one of the top 50 beaches in the world (voted by Conde Nast Traveler). A place I have yet to visit, but will on my next trip, is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Citadelle Laferriere and Palais San Souci, both in the North around Cap Hatien.
Do you have any suggestions for how travelers can contribute to Haiti while visiting?
I think the best way to contribute to Haiti, whether you’re on business, on a family vacation or just back-backing around the country, is to spend your money at local businesses, not at international, franchise businesses. There are many locally owned boutique style inns, amazing artisans producing unique art, cafes & bars to have fun at; basically shop local. Also, there are travel companies that put together itinerary’s where a tour group will coordinate with a local Haitian non-profit and spend time assisting a community with a specific project, perhaps building a house, digging a well or teaching kids to speak English. On my last trip I met a group from Elevate Destinations, who had 12 people from America, creating art projects for young kids, conducting business seminars for young adults and producing/filming a music video for a young musician. Don’t just give, participate.
Please pick your favorite picture and share the story behind how it was captured. This could be anything interesting or funny that the reader would not know from just looking at the image.
This above image is one of my favorites because it’s all about kids having fun. Not to mention it’s one of those rewarding moments when deciding to join in with the fun and having the right equipment made the image possible.
I had been walking around the island on one of my daily photo safaris, and came across a beach where there was a huge beach party – music, food, two very loud, dueling DJ’s and lots of people dancing and having fun. When I saw these kids leaping off this boat, I just had to get some images of their joyful antics. From previous experience of photographing kids, I figured I’d get better photos if I joined in with the fun. So I dropped my gear on the beach and pulled out my waterproof, point & shoot Nikon and started showing them my “mad” diving skills, which prompted each of them to out-do the previous ones diving/jumping skills. I spent the rest of the day and well into the night at the beach party, joining in with the revelry and snapping some pics as well.
What are some of your most memorable moments in Haiti?
My most memorable moments and experiences really revolve around people I’ve met and befriended on my travels to Haiti and the journey that we’ve shared, especially the kids. Sharing the Beautiful Game with them, their parents and the whole community in Kakok, the village where the tournament takes place, is etched in my memory. Drinking icy cold Prestige beer on a steamy night; racing through Port au Prince on the back of a moped taxi, dodging all kinds of obstacles, was pretty exciting and snorkeling the reefs off Ile-a-Vache as the sunset light pierced the crystal clear water was sublime. I’m very fortunate to have this place that lives in my heart and mind.
What’s next for you?
What’s next for me is the 5th Annual Ile-a-Vache Soccer Tournament, which will take place in July 2015. This year we’d like to take some New York City soccer coaches down to the island, hopefully with their youth soccer teams for some international scrimmages – that way we can really share the Beautiful Game from the ground up.
Images Courtesy of Simon Russell