Mentally Preparing for Haiti on the Earthquake Anniversary

With every assignment, my job is gaining more meaning and thrill, becoming increasing moving and educative. From researching Frida Kahlo to cutting videos on Nelson Mandela, I've been diving further into pivotal, global issues. And though - technically - our upcoming trip to Haiti is a freelance assignment to document a medical non-profit, I'm going in the capacity of a filmmaker and an indirect educator. For the past month, I've been taking in knowledge of old Saint-Domingue like a sponge, and I'm hoping to include you, my ever-enlightening audience, in this pursuit of awareness.

On the Anniversary of a Catastrophe

On January 12th, 2010 at 4:52pm, a 7.0 point earthquake knocked an already feeble Port-au-Prince into a deeper state of instability. I was isolated from this knowledge in Nakavika and only became aware three days later, along with the rest of the village. Though we weren't on the exact antipodal point from the epicenter, we were pretty darn far away. Even on the other side of the globe - in a culture relatively out of the information loop - the Fijians had a visceral moment of sadness for their brothers and sisters in Haiti. I couldn't fathom what I heard.

Haiti Post-earthquake from the Epicenter in Léogâne
Haiti Post-earthquake from the Epicenter in Léogâne

Houses of concrete cards collapsed with ease under the pressure of this rumble. Three million people felt the shutter and the awful repercussions afterward.

I didn't grow up feeling particularly infuriated with the injustices of the world I couldn't see, but I remember being saddened to the core when viewing beggars on the highway ramps. To use some classic American lingo, it's hard for me to react viscerally until I see the whites of eyes.

Understanding the plights of those in countries with which I've had little contact is difficult for me. Black voids usually become inhabited with faces and experience once I step foot inbounds. It shouldn't, but it takes a personal relationship to make that connection happen - that relationship sometimes only need be as deep as a passing glance. Even today, I go through a constant battle with my own mental inertia, knowing I have a civic responsibility to my world to understand what my fellow humans go through.

To simply feel sad seems selfish and unproductive. And to not feel this sadness at all presents a personal situation that confronts our own humanity and capacity for evil inaction. Global citizens must push themselves to form thoughts and emotions regarding their unseen kin. One year later, it's still hard for me to realize what happened in Port-au-Prince and Léogâne.

Steps Toward Some Understanding

I've only just begun my education on Haiti, an island a three hour flight from my current home in New York City. Though that country on my mental map is still hazy and underdeveloped, faces are slowly appearing and the smell of the tropical air is hinting itself at my hungry brain - thanks to some research pre-trip.

I'm not only doing destination research this time around. This will be a trip far different from any I've ever taken to this point. I'm not going there to celebrate through documentation. I'm documenting in hopes trails can be blazed toward some stability - that then can be celebrated.

I have no experience being anything close to a war photographer or a hardcore journalist. Up to this point, I've been playing the part of a documentarian in my own terms, happy with what I could produce as a self-taught. Now expectations are mounting, and I find myself filling roles from which I thought the humble part of me would want to flee. Of course, the only barriers created between people and ideal jobs are those created by the person themselves. Therefore, if I want to be someone who documents with impact, I am completely capable of making my own preparations - logistically, mentally, and actually.

U.S. Helicopter Lands Beside Haiti's Crumbling Presidential Palace
U.S. Helicopter Lands Beside Haiti's Crumbling Presidential Palace

In order to be a responsible global citizen and an adequate documentarian on this upcoming trip, here are some steps I'm taking that may be beneficial to you in your own pursuits of awareness:

Researching History and Culture: Haiti doesn't make frequent news appearances, so instead of relying on periodicals, I went for my favorite medium: the narrative. I've been reading Haiti: The Tumultuous History - From the Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation. This is essential knowledge for any first Haiti trip. I hope Ms. Palin is reading.

Learning Haitian Creole: According to this narrative, many Haitians are suspicious of American and foreign visitors due to previous colonization and hostilities. I hope that knowing even basic, conversational Creole will help me interact with people and immediately allow the possibility of good rapport and trust. I've been tweeting my newly-learned phrases. It's like phonetic French and very easy to remember.

Scouring The News: On top of other reading, I'm hoping to keep current. There should be plenty out there today due to the anniversary. For example: Haitian Amputees Find New Outlet in Soccer, Haitians Take Rubble Removal Into Their Own Hands, A Symbol of Hope for Haiti, a Landmark Again Stands Tall, and Dark Tales Illuminate Haiti, Before and After Quake.

Observing Others' Documentation: Identifying style, timing, equipment, storytelling, involvement choices, etc., this method is proving to be key preparation. Here's a recent video from The New York Times:

Bummed at Uprising in Fiji and In Shock
Bummed at Uprising in Fiji and In Shock

Milking My Eyes Dry: I am a crier. Every day in Fiji, the pressures of the exchange and the struggles of humanity led me to tears. I've worked my entire life to harness this pattern of mine, but it's settled; I cannot stop myself when I'm moved to weep. At this point, I'm telling myself it's because I'm so darn passionate, but when it comes to this work, I really need to know how to keep it together. I do have the capacity, however, to go numb and detach myself with severe meditation. Therefore, I'm hoping to desensitize myself pre-trip in order to maintain composure. Looking at United Nations photos helps in this process, and watching videos (like the one above) are also effective.

You Are The Final Prep Step

Baby steps to early February, when I'll be packing up a little bag and heading out with Jenny Buccos to stay with a Haitian family and document for two solid days. And as I prepare, I ask you:

What is it you can offer to make this the most effective, fruitful, meaningful use of time and efforts toward a better Haiti in the long run?

What is it you want to know about Haiti, one year after the awful earthquake, and do you have any additional suggestions for preparation?

How can I be successful at exposing the realities of this situation to the global community, and how can I be most efficient in providing to the Haitian people through storytelling?

I look forward to our joint pursuit of awareness.

Images available under public domain and creative commons by the U.S. Coast Guard and United Nations Photo on Flickr. Affiliate links exist above, and if commissions are received, they'll be redirected toward Project Medishare.