Why Our Personal Stories Are Important
After the earthquake, I put my camera down and I didn’t know if I’d pick it up again. I had spent years and many thousands of dollars becoming a photographer and none of it mattered to me. I had recently married to an American diplomat and was living with him in Haiti when the earthquake struck. I passed the days after assisting in the disaster relief in whatever way I could: cleaning toilets at the embassy, tracking down diapers and baby formula, cooking for more than twenty exhausted embassy employees who paused at my home for a quick bite and some shut eye before heading back to work. I put all my energy into helping Americans leave Haiti and tried not to think about the devastation I’d seen outside of the embassy walls.
I remember getting an email that said, “The photos you will take from this experience will make your career.” The photos I eventually made in Haiti did not “make” my career, but they started me down a path that changed the way I saw photography and development. I didn’t know it then but my choices in the weeks after the earthquake gave me some important clues about the work I should be doing. I learned that I was not capable of picking up my camera when life and death was on the line. I learned I was more humanitarian than photojournalist.
This is my story, and it’s not one that I often share. I’d always thought of my reasons for joining this line of work as personal. Besides, why would anyone care? But last week while attending The Storytelling Nonprofit Virtual Conference, I was confronted with the idea that our individual stories hold power. I tend to think of stories from a nonprofit’s point of view, so it was an aha! moment to realize that every single person connected with an organization has experiences worth sharing. And I am one of those people as well– my story is also important. We are all influenced by stories. And each of us have the ability to connect and influence others through our personal stories.
After the earthquake, I eventually returned to my camera. I took my first workshop on photographing for nonprofits. I flew from Port-au-Prince to Uganda. I was recovering from an earthquake. Uganda was recovering from war. This trip was the best therapy I could’ve done for myself. I worked with organizations that were helping people by providing food, education, and women’s empowerment. My photos were helping contribute to the greater good and I felt something that I hadn’t felt in many months: hope. I returned to Haiti and did several projects with local nonprofits supporting those affected by the earthquake.
You already know what came next. I’m still a photographer today. But I’d like to think that I’m staying true to my humanitarian roots. Every day I learn to strike the balance between telling stories and giving people the dignity that they deserve.