My name is Vanessa Rigaud. I am a travel occupational therapist by day, photographer and philanthropist by passion. I am currently living in Woodbridge, VA on a travel assignment for the next 3 months. I also co-own a jewelry business, Bisoux Jewelry, with my sister.
How was your interest in photography sparked?
My interest in photography was initially sparked out of a need. My sister and I had just started our jewelry business, in which all our proceeds are currently going towards our Haiti efforts, and we needed to take pictures of our inventory and had aspirations of creating a lookbook. We couldn't afford a photographer or anything at the time, and I had always been interested in the craft anyways, so I decided to buy a DSLR off of craigslist. It was love at first click =)
What is your favorite approach to photography? Do you generally strike up a conversation with your subjects or just capture the moment?
It's sort of a mix but I really love to capture the moment when my subject is unsuspecting. I find that a forewarning sometimes forces the person to be a little bit more self-conscious, which can sometimes result in a very staged and phony photo. One of the only exceptions to that is photographing children, who are most often always themselves.
How do you define Haitian culture? What do you love most about living in (or being from) Haiti?
I define Haitian culture as strength, beauty and resilience. We are trailblazers, with a rich history that is often overshadowed by our current economic state. We are the first black republic, the first and only successful slave revolt to result in the establishment of an independent country. In regards to world history, that's a pretty significant event! No matter what the media showcases or what people choose to believe, no one can ever take that away from us. We are overcomers, and we more than make do with our limited resources. What I love most about being Haitian is recognizing that is the blood that is running through my veins and pumping from my heart. Our culture is heterogeneous; a lavish mix of the aboriginal Taino Indian, West African and French influences, which has birthed a culture rich in art, music, literature and cuisine.
Do you believe NGO’s and missionaries that come to Haiti have made a positive impact?
There are a lot of mixed emotions in the Haitian community when it comes to NGOs and missionaries. As individual organizations, missionaries do make some impact, albeit with somewhat temporary outcomes. What Haiti really needs is consistency, relief on a broader scale, and a sense of unity between nonprofit projects. No one seems to be coordinating with each other, resulting in underfunded or duplicated projects that often leave people in a state of confusion or instill a false sense of hope. I'm not saying that these organizations are not helpful; however once established, the resources are often not available to keep sustainable in the long run. Because of this pattern, some Haitians have become a little weary of missionaries.
How can travelers contribute to Haiti while visiting? Are there any non-profit organizations you can recommend?
I believe the best way to contribute to Haiti is by investing in Haitian artisans and products that are made by corporations that employ Haitians IN Haiti. In short, buy Haitian made goods! It's surprising to see how much is imported into the country. Some great products that are made in Haiti by Haitians include calabash bags by Jacmel and Co, backpacks by Edike, Fait La Force home goods and Paula | Coles Handbags. One can also buy Haitian-made products at the grocery store including Bongu (the Haitian version of Goya), the infamous Haitian Rum Barbancourt, and Trezo d'Haiti Coffee, and then continue to buy them online in The States (or worldwide). There are also so many artists selling beautiful work right on the street, support them! It is important to portray Haiti in an honest way to outsiders, including posting positive images of Haiti on social networks and encouraging outsiders to come and explore. I am so exhausted of the one-dimensional way that Haiti has been portrayed in the media thus far - that is why I am so grateful for blogs like this!
There are quite a few nonprofit organizations that are one the ground and have proven to be consistent and reliable. I would highly recommend donating to the First 52 Project by Mariner's Church and taking opportunities to travel to Haiti with Experience Missions, Partners In Health, Doctors without Borders and UpLift Haiti.
Descriptions & recommendations of the best places for travelers to visit throughout Haiti:
Cities to visit:
In the North, visit Cap-Haïtien, a commune popular for their historical landmarks such as the Citadelle; a mountain top fortress built to ward off invaders after the slave rebellion. It is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is on my "must see" list. In the south Jacmel is a must for the art scene, beautiful beaches and the French colonialism architecture. One can also journey through waterfalls and cool basins at Bassin Bleu which is not too far away. Petion-Ville, the middle to upper class neighborhood outside of Port-au-Prince, is another popular spot for tourists, where one can find shopping malls, numerous restaurants and the party scene. There's also the white-sandy and clear waters of Wahoo Bay Beach, a 45 minute drive from Port-au-Prince, and Île-à-Vache, a satellite island off of the southern tip which is a famous backdrop for glamorous photo-shoots, water sports, and resorts.
Best markets for local shopping:
Honestly, most of the local shopping can be found on self-made displays on the side of major roads where artists showcase their paintings, cast-iron work, jewelry and trinkets. This is especially true in Port-au-Prince and its surrounding areas.
Best foods to try:
All Haitian food is delicious! A must try and tourist favorite is Griot (deep fried pork), Haitian patties (pastries filled with beef, chicken or fish), Bunun Peze (fried green plantain), and my favorite rice of all time, Diri a djon-djon (black mushroom rice). I also highly recommend Magdoos and Pizza Garden, which are my favorite restaurants in Petion-Ville.
How best to navigate through the country (transportation):
The safest way to travel the country is by hiring a personal driver or traveling with a tourist group such as My Haiti Travels, Belle Vue Tours or a nonprofit organization. I would not recommend public transportation to a newcomer.
Are there any common misconceptions of Haiti you would like to clarify & debunk?
We do not all practice voodoo, and we are not a homogenous culture. We are more than our economic state and we are not looking for handouts; we have something to offer the world too.
Of all of the images you've capture throughout Haiti, which would you say is your favorite?
I love the image of the two girls I caught laughing while playing a game, their faces turned away from the camera (see below). It was taken at Emmanuel Refuge Orphanage in Carrefour, an orphanage that we, as GPS Your Purpose in coordination with Experience Missions, have been providing aid to. I feel like joy just emanates from the photo. It captures the childlike innocence and carelessness we all crave as adults. In that frame they are no different than any other kid on earth. These young girls are just enjoying life and living in the moment. It just reminds me that joy can be found anywhere despite our circumstances, and in essence we as humans are all the same.
What is your favorite or funniest memory of Haiti?
My favorite memory in Haiti happens to be a recurring explanation when people prod for the root cause of my deterrence from a particular food group. We used to spend our summers in Haiti, and as a kid sometimes you don't pick up on the acute differences in the cultures that you find yourself between. In the U.S. most animals that are laying around the house are pets and you never consider eating them. So, during a family vacation in Gonaïves one year I befriended a goat that was always hanging around the house. I had named it and everything, in my mind it was a pet. The last night we were there my aunts had a huge dinner made with all type of Haitian delicacies which I thoroughly enjoyed, but later on in the evening I noticed my beloved goat was no longer running around and asked one of the house maids where it had gone. She told me it was in my belly and proceeded to show me the remains of it in what I'll assume was some kind of slaughter bucket. I haven't had a piece of red meat or pork since.
What’s next for you?
Nothing specifically, I just plan on growing in my craft, cultivating my passion for my country, and learning.
For more insight into everything Haiti, you can contact Vanessa at Vanessa.Rachelle(at)gmail.com or follow her @Macherie_ayiti on Instagram.
Images Courtesy of Vanessa Rigaud
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