A week has passed since Haiti suffered from a 7.0-magnitude earthquake. The earthquake wasn't the only tragedy afflicting Haiti at that time; the country was suffering from poverty and political corruption long before the earthquake hit. Like Katrina, the earthquake shed light on systemic forces of oppression that made Haiti such a prime target for disaster.
My friend J. said it well in a recent email:
It is with grave horror that I take in the daily news of the horrific conditions in Haiti. To believe, as perhaps I once wanted to, that what happened last Tuesday and since is "a natural disaster" only, would mean I am willfully choosing to not know a lot about the history of Haiti...The issue is not whether funds will roll in this week and next. The issue is what will be done to make Haiti a self-sustaining nation again...
Food, water, clothing, and shelter are critical at this point in time, but J's right—Haiti needs more than band-aids. This inspired me ask some important questions about how bloggers, social media aficionados, and digital media activists can best address problems in Haiti. How can digital media be responsibly used to address social, political, and economic crises? Moreover, how can it be used to push for both short-term relief AND long-term change?
As Tara and I set to work developing Project Haiti Speaks—a campaign to bring cameras and other digital media devices to Haitian citizens and volunteer workers—I began thinking deeply about the moral implications of publicly documenting the tragedy in Haiti. More emails followed, including one from Nathan, an activist and photographer who spent time in Haiti before the earthquake.
One of my personal struggles in doing photography in Haiti is that while my work goes on to inform others of my perspective in Haiti, it does nothing to feed people, heal people, or change a system that I see as nearly cemented in place by 200 years of US and European economic policy. I wonder how to make effective and lasting impacts when there is a system of immense power and a running head start continuing to push back. This...is an internal battle that I believe anyone with a strong conscience and sense of self reflection should go through in their work.
Nathan brought up a very good point. While it's great that so many Americans want to help, it's also important to think about what Haiti actually needs, and whether or not our efforts are actually benefiting the people of Haiti. American relief efforts should be driven by an understanding of what resources would provide the greatest benefit, rather than driven by an ego-based desire to be the hero that swoops in and saves the day. As Nathan pointed out, we're not just fighting a natural disaster—we're fighting an entire system of poverty and political corruption in sore need of reform.
I don't know exactly what it will take. My instinct tells me that we need to learn more about these issues from the source. Too often, we hear stories that are told about the survivors, where a narrator with a minimal connection to the tragedy attempts to explain lives that s/he doesn't truly understand. But Haitian citizens have the right to tell their own stories; they have the right to engage in public discussion about how to remedy the crisis in Haiti. Additionally, the only way that we here in the States can really know what's going on is to hear about the lives, the triumphs and the tragedies, from the Haitian people themselves.
This is why Project Haiti Speaks could be so valuable. Too many Haitian citizens and volunteer workers currently lack access to digital communication tools and resources, therefore, their stories are being told for them by major media companies. Providing cameras and online access to survivors will enable them to continue posting public content about current events in Haiti, long after traditional mass media has abandoned Haiti for the next juicy piece of celebrity gossip. Cit-journalists could provide the inside scoop about which relief organizations are doing the best work, and they could clarify confusion surrounding recent accusations of relief effort scams funneling millions to unworthy pocketbooks. Survivors need to know that their voices are important, and that people around the world are listening.
I also see that there's a need to be extremely sensitive and thoughtful in the approach of Project Haiti Speaks. Of course, we don't want filming and photography to serve as a distraction from other relief efforts. Making sure that people have food, water, and shelter is so much more important. Also, we want to be conscious of citizens' privacy. Some may not want their private crises to be publicly displayed at this point in time, and we want to be very sensitive of those needs and boundaries. But for those who have something to say, we need to ensure that they have an opportunity to be heard.