Making Meaning

Our trip is winding down and I am faced with the aching in my heart that always accompanies leaving something that you love. I have learned so much about this country and culture, photography, and myself in these past five weeks that that I can hardly imagine what going back to the States will be like. For example, I now know that I can hold my own in a soccer game if, and only if, the Haitians playing take it easy on me. I know that freeze tag can bring out the child in anyone. And I know that fresh mangoes are one of the truest pleasures of this world.

One of the most important lessons that I have learned is the real, tangible, importance of photography. As an art history student, I often have existential crises surrounding art. Does it actually matter enough to study? What difference can you really make by studying art? As an artist, I know that making art is important, but as an art historian, sometimes it doesn’t feel like there is any point to studying it. My time in Haiti has provided some clarity on the importance of art, both making art and studying it.

As an American, I have grown up surrounded by the photographic image. We take so many photos that they have practically lost their meaning. The families involved in the Zanmi Foto program did not have any access to photography until their involvement in the project. Now, they are able to create a timeline for themselves, a way of preserving memories that they did not have before.

One of the Zanmi Foto photographers with her children and neighbors looking at her family’s photo album.

The way the families then study these images reminds me of the way I study works of art in my art history classes. Families are asked questions about the images they have taken – why do you like it? Who is in the image? What are they doing? These are the same types of questions that I ask when looking at a work of art. By asking these questions, the families gain a better understanding of what the photo means, as well as a better understanding of how to make photos that they like.

I will take many of the lessons I have learned here with me back to the states: that sunscreen reapplication is crucial, how to hand-wash my clothes in a way that is mostly successful, how good a cold shower feels (and also how cold a cold shower can really be sometimes), but my interactions with the photographers here has altered the way I approach two of the most important parts of my life – making photos, and studying art.

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