Received a wonderful email yesterday from Colin Crowley. I first met Colin around 2004, when I was running for state assembly and he was doing a barista stint at the New Moon coffee shop. A gifted photographer and videographer, Colin has taken his talents around the globe. A few years ago many of us followed his gripping portrait of life in Afghanistan and Pakistan
. As for what Colin's been up to in the last few years, I'll quote directly from his email:
I've been working for the British NGO Save the Children UK since April of 2008. I work for their emergencies team as a multimedia officer which means I create photo essays, make videos, write case studies,and very often contribute to international media pieces on humanitarian crises - sometimes acting as a chaperone for international journalists when they visit Save the Children's programs. The last two years have been great for me, and rather than feeling like a "weird" guy who speaks French and takes photos in Oshkosh - I've fallen into a role where those things are completely normal - expected even in my current milieu.Since I started, my travels have followed major humanitarian emergencies around the globe. China for the earthquake, Myanmar for the cyclone (terrible government, wonderful country and people), DR Congo for the war, Zimbabwe - cholera outbreak, Ethiopia - food crisis, Northeast Kenya - food crisis, South Sudan - everything, Haiti - right after the earthquake (very ugly situation) and a bunch of places in between for this and that. I'm currently in Niger documenting a really bad food crisis that will unfortunately probably pass under the media radar until the World Cup excitement is over with. But anyway, it's been an interesting ride and it's been a great way to see the world and meet people - kind of like a vacation to all the places where you'd never want to take a vacation.
Colin's wife is Kenyan, and they live in Nairobi with their baby daughter. He says that "living in Africa is fun, frustrating, inspiring, relaxed, frightening, easy-going and highly-stressful all at the same time, and very often all those things within the course of 24 hours.
Traveling in the third world has given Colin an interesting perspective on the American "Tea Party" movement: "I have spent the past two years working in countries where governments don't spend ANY money on ANYTHING for their people, and all I have found is overwhelming human suffering. Then I look back home and see all these people shouting about not wanting to pay taxes for this and that. I noted your reference to the "dumbassification" of the American Public and it made me think of just this sort of thing.
Colin spent some time in Haiti documenting the horrific after effects of the earthquake. His photo essay can be found here
. He also emailed me a piece he write back in February on what it was like to be a photographer in Haiti after the event. I'll reproduce it here in full:
Some thoughts on the photographer situation in Haiti and what it was like to be a photographer/videographer in the weeks immediately following the earthquake:
…in a lot of ways, I think things got out of hand, because for the population who suffered through the earthquake, they saw about 3000 foreign photographers swarm into their city overnight - long before it was possible to get them any substantial aid in those circumstances. So it put out a lot of mixed messages to Haitians - they saw that foreign countries are able to send people to gawk faster than they are able to actually give out any help. By week two people started getting fed up with this and I certainly felt these repercussions in my own interactions with the Haitian public.
However, as a member of an aid organization, it gives me more flexibility. First off, I'm not under pressure to file the most sensationalistic story I can find so that I can beat out the hundred other photogs who were all within the same area I was when I was following a story. I was also able to take a lot of time to hang out with people and try to establish relationships before I started taking any pictures. Speaking French and enough Kreyol to break the ice helped a lot as well, and it was a bit embarrassing to see how many photographers had flown in without the least bit of French language background
Finally, whenever I was met with mild hostility I could diffuse some of the negativity directed towards me by explaining the relationship between the pictures and video I was taking to the tangible aid they were receiving. In particular, Save the Children was distributing household items, food, water, tents, medicines, doctors and putting up latrines showers and water points in the camps all within the first two weeks. So if anybody got angry asking what the hell I was doing taking photos, I could just take the time to point to these things out and explain very clearly and very slowly that I was trying to help our organization to get more donations so that we could continue providing more aid. Very often these conversations would become the starting points for friendly relationships and people who were initially hostile would end up being extremely helpful. I think it helped to understand that the hostility was born out of very real frustrations.
But it wasn't easy, and some days I would go out and visit the little girl and family I was following and I could just tell that they didn't want to have their picture taken. One aspect of being photographer in these situations that is difficult for me is that on my end there is a level of excitement about being able to document peoples' lives and tell their stories at this huge moment in history, and this is accompanied by adrenaline and an enthusiasm for my work. But the point of view of the people whose situations I’m documenting is completely different - they've just lived through a catastrophe that destroyed their homes, killed their friends and family, turned their city upside down, and put them out on the streets living shameful conditions - and now there's this guy here who wants to take pictures of us!?
So I definitely have some things to process and think about. This is actually my third post-earthquake trip and I have to admit I have a morbid fascination with the visual beauty of all this destruction. The figure of a human being standing amidst a pile of ugly, urban rubble is for me, this overwhelmingly powerful symbolic image.
But what it symbolizes exactly, is a question I'm still grappling with. For now, all I can really come up with is "the best laid plans of mice and men..." A lot of journos started getting rocks thrown at them in the second and third weeks - mostly with good reason - i.e. not knowing when to put the camera down, not attempting to communicate with people, and in some instances taking pictures of woman and girls while they were bathing in makeshift showers in the camps. I would like to think that I have some sort of immunity to this, and while I think having a good head on your shoulders and making judgment calls that incorporate a certain morality can help keep you out of trouble - there is always the unknown factor and randomness of a crowd of people that get pushed to an extreme and spontaneously degenerate into frenzy. Just look at Dan Eldon's
example to see proof of that - no matter how careful you are or how good your intentions, there is always the possibility that you will get caught in the wrong place at the wrong moment.
Finally, after the initial period of voyeurism passes and the Haiti earthquake fades out of the 24-hour news cycle, we should consider the very real possibility of there being "too few" photographers in Haiti. While these immediate weeks have brought the eyes of the world onto Haiti, we all know how short the attention span of the international media can be. The response to this crisis is not going to be finished in five months, a year, or even five years, but is going to literally take a generation. How the world pays attention to this, and the kind of attention they pay will largely affect how well the people of Haiti are able to recover.
Finally, finally - as a French speaker and certified “Creolefile,” I would like to say that despite the sensationalistic reports of looting and rioting post-earthquake, Haitians are just an awesome people – resilient in ways that are unimaginable to us in the States, and strong in their ability to cope with unthinkable extremes. Haiti, despite its grave problems is still a wonderful place.
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
February 10, 2010
Colin says that "my goal is to just let people speak for themselves as much as possible and tell their story in their own words - without imposing too much of a spin onto what they're saying." Here are some examples:
A boy dealing with the food crisis in NE Kenya 2009
A former child soldier tells his story in South Sudan 2010
A girl talking about her experience of the Haiti Earthquake 2010
As noted, Colin is currently in Niger documenting a bad food crisis. He will soon be blogging from the area. I will put the link on T2T.