Sep 30, 2011

Humbled In Haiti

by Todd Ellis

A while back my girlfriend Amie challenged me to “get out of my comfort zone.” I am a person who likes to operate with the same routine every day. Maybe Amie saw something in me that needed being jolted. Her suggestion on how to step out of my comfortable realm was far from anything I had ever thought about doing. 

I am Todd Ellis. During the day, I help execute the day to day logistics of a trucking company based out of St. George, Utah. After that, I am a professional freelance photographer. Photography is my passion and is one of the most fulfilling activities in my life.

Normally I photograph athletic events, people, and nature. Southern Utah provides me with a multitude of sources for my photographing desire. Between the beautiful southwestern landscapes, and the quality people who reside here, there is a treasure trove of subjects for my camera to capture.

Amie invited me to go to Haiti with her and her family as a volunteer for their foundation (FFCIN).  Besides learning more about my girlfriend and witnessing her in humanitarian mode, I would gain the humbling experience of seeing third world condition up-close. In addition, Haiti would be something far different from any subject I have photographed. This trip to Haiti would make me grow as a person, and hopefully, I would grow as a photographer. I cannot deny that I had apprehension in my heart and mind. I didn’t know much about Haiti and really did not know what to expect.

Looking out of the window of the 747 at the largest Haitian city, Port-au-Prince, as we were approaching the airport, struck me with a heightened sense of reality. Up to this point, Haiti had just been a novel thought.

I saw the slum areas; made up of the makeshift structures that so many of the over three million in populace uses for shelters. I saw trash filled waterways, right next to housing. I saw mass activity in narrow streets with rising smoke from people burning garbage.  After the plane touched down, I walked down the ramp and entered into this third world’s tragic conditions: for seven days.

The smell of trash and stagnate water, the sound of unfamiliar language, and the realization that I was a man of minority status, made me question my decision to step outside of my comfort zone.  I don’t speak a lick of the language so I didn’t understand any of what is being said at Customs. They searched all of our bags, which mostly contained supplies from donations. We made our way through, and outside the airport was a small truck waiting for us to load up our supplies for the drive to the foundation.

The truck was an old, beat up, Nissan pickup truck. It had a diesel engine, and reeked of diesel fuel. We loaded into the back of this rickety, old, truck and took off towards our destination.  Traveling around Port-au-Prince seemed crazy at first. There were no traffic rules. There were no defined lanes.  Cars, busses and trucks just made their own way in and out of each other, on the narrow disintegrated roadways. It was mass confusion. I was glad to arrive at our guest home and have a feeling of some kind of safety.

One of the main reasons for going there was to help and volunteer in the orphanages. While visiting, we notice there were many children but only a few workers to tend to their needs.  Some of the children were very sick and malnourished. Amie’s mother who runs the Foundation told us in orientation that the most important thing was to make the orphans feel loved.

If nothing else, we were to make sure that the kids were held and that their basic need for human contact was met. A particular orphanage we visited, was a small three-room house with approximately 50-60 children living there.

As we entered through the gate, I saw a young girl doing laundry in a tub. She’s was just scrubbing away. She looked about six years old, maybe seven. She looked at us with curiosity but did not stop scrubbing the clothes.  There she was, a young little girl, carrying on as if she was a mother herself.  I thought, "I can’t even get my kids to put their clothes in the laundry basket".
We took bottles of “blow bubbles”, bags of suckers, and ribbons for the girl’s hair. We also brought mirrors, so that the girls could see themselves. This was a big hit and confirmed my suspicion about girls and mirrors!

We also assessed their needs, and returned the next day with rice and beans and even some milk. We bought and took anti-bacterial supplies to treat the kids who had open sores. We found some plastic tubs on a street corner that we purchased to use for cleaning the kids.  We devised an assembly line where we washed the babies in the first tub, rinsed them in anti-bacterial solution in a second tub, and then applied medicine to their sores.

These babies and older kids were suffering with open sores.  They were mal-nourished and their poor bellies were sticking out. They don't have anybody. Seeing this and taking part in this project affected me greatly.

I met a girl named Abigail who came up to me. She could actually make out a few words in english. She pointed to my eyes and said “eyes,” and pointed to my ears and said “ears,” as if she was trying to impress me. My guess is that she was about nine years old.

Every time I went to that orphanage, where Abigail lived, she was the first kid to meet me. She would practically throw herself in my arms, hang on my shoulders, she didn't want me to let go of her when it was time to leave.  At the end of our day, the members of the volunteer group had to make a plan about the exit. On cue we'd quietly meet at the front gate and hurry out the door, and leave as quickly as possible. That was a hard thing to do, each time.

On another day, I walked down an alley behind the orphanage where there was a small building. There were flies everywhere, and an awful smell. After I walked around a corner, I saw children standing in a line that led to a narrow doorway of a building.  The children looked at me in a curious manner and then it hit me. The children were standing in a line to use a bathroom. This little closet-sized space housed a non-plumbed latrine that about 60 kids use. It’s basically an outhouse.

These poor little children are lined up and waiting for their turn to use the only latrine available to them. Seeing this line of children and discovering what they were lined up for was another glimpse into the reality of the conditions that these children live in.  I took a few shots, turned around and headed back to the front of the orphanage. As I walked back, I could not help wrestling with feelings of guilt. These few stories certainly do not fully express my experience in Haiti. The many photos I captured would demand many pages of text in order to properly describe the scenes that affected me.

As I drove home from Las Vegas, after flying into McCarran International Airport around 2 AM, I noticed the reflectors on the interstate. Those hundreds of thousands of reflectors that helped light my path home, something I had totally taken for granted before, was now something of little importance.  I remember thinking, "Do I really need reflectors for hundreds of miles to keep me on the road?"

When I saw my sons the next day, I hugged them with a tighter grip.  When I ate my next meal, I thought about that little four-year old Haitian girl who spilled her plate of rice and beans on the floor. She was so upset! I watched as she scooped up every bit of food that she could get off the filthy floor.  My experience in Haiti definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone. I would like to think that I view everything with more appreciation now.  When I take photos, I search deeper, trying to capture a more meaningful representation of the figure I am targeting my lens on.

I look forward to returning again to Haiti, to keep myself focused on the things in life that are really important and worrying less about things like reflectors in the road.

*The Foundation For Children In Need ( ) was Founded (in 2001) as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization to help the children of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.


Robert said...

You da' man Todd, You da' man.

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