I have spent several years as a retired midwife photographing the life-saving work of Midwives for Haiti. Several of these photos and stories have been published in prominent publications because these are a known network for Western photographers. Photographs have power to inform, to move, to inspire. Several years ago, it occurred to me how few images we see about Haiti are by local Haitians. Images of the developing world are typically taken by visitors, including myself. What I see through my lenses cannot be the complete picture.
I was motivated to find a Haitian photographer would not only add depth to the Midwives for Haiti story, but would also potentially inform the larger Haitian community about the work being done on behalf of mothers, babies, and ultimately, for families. I wanted to experience a Haitian perspective and had a hunch others would too.
Last fall, quite serendipitously, I met Marie Arago, one of the founders of FotoKonbit. FotoKonbit was founded in 2010 by a group of Haitian and American photographers, artists, educators to teach photography to youth and adults in Haiti. By December 2015, FotoKonbit had student work featured in the National Geographic: Haiti on Its Own Terms. I was able to convince Marie that a partnership between one of their photographers and Midwives for Haiti would be a wonderful, mutually beneficial collaboration. I described personal characteristics that would be a good match – preferably a woman, able to deal with very personal and sometimes difficult or demanding situations, and quietly unobtrusive. Marie told me that she knew a young woman she thought would be perfect – Phalonne Pierre Louis.
Phalonne is a 24-year old student in her last year at the University of PAP, majoring in both social work and business administration. She has studied photography through the Centre D’Art with FotoKonbit since 2016. She admits she had never given maternal-infant health care much thought until now.
Phalonne, fluent in both Kreyol and French, was a bit apologetic for her imperfect English, but I was amazed by her command of it. Phalonne describes her path within photography, “From an early age, I wanted to do something special with a camera, it was a passion for me. When the opportunity arose, I opted for photojournalism because I felt in myself the ability to reveal what is happening around me through images. Few women in my country engage in photojournalism, I choose this path because I know that I can accurately reflect the reality of my community in my photographs. With photojournalism, I would like to be able to present a different point of view, to bring out reality in the imagination. Among other things, as a social worker, I would like to contribute, especially in remote areas, to the social integration of the people who live there. Especially children who live in precarious situations.”
Phalonne is a gifted photographer and a delightful companion. During the week we worked together, she witnessed her first childbirth, her first caesarian section, and the resuscitation of a severely compromised newborn. We went to a variety of clinics: family planning, prenatal, postpartum, and out to the Selpetre Mobile Clinic. Phalonne learned about matwons and their training. She took it upon herself to meet with several students outside of clinical work to interview and photograph them in their homes. Phalonne handled everything with a keen eye and attentiveness, recording her conversations and observations in a small spiral notepad hung from a cord around her neck like a necklace.
Phalonne describes her week-long experience, “During my stay in Hinche with Midwives for Haiti, I learned a lot of things both in the field of health and in the social life of the inhabitants of this municipality. This experience allowed me to get closer to people and be more attentive to their needs. It must be said that Midwives for Haiti is doing a very important job in the Central Plateau, precisely in Hinche. With the arrival of the project [Midwives for Haiti], the maternal and infant mortality rate dropped considerably according to the statements made. With the motto “chak manman konte” [Every Mother Counts], Midwives for Haiti has set itself the goal of training every year [nurses who have] the desires of training in the field of maternity, to increase the access of pregnant women to health care. In addition, the matwons, who take care of pregnant women in remote areas, are beneficiaries of this training to improve their skills and know-how. The Midwives for Haiti team is working hard to combat the death rate in the community of Hinche and are saving the lives of many women and their offspring.”
I’m optimistic about Phalonne’s photojournalism skills and the impact she can make in Haiti. Phalonne shared her website with me and I was especially drawn to two humanitarian stories: one, titled Une Nouvelle Vie, follows the life of a young man who lost his lower leg during the devastating earthquake in 2010, and the other, Jerhico, centers on the life of a three-year old girl essentially being raised by older siblings because her parents must both work long hours to provide food for their family. Phalonne shyly mentioned that the story about the young man had just been published in a Haitian print journal. The images she took during our time together with Midwives for Haiti were very compelling. These stories are important to tell and she is a gifted woman to tell them.
The outreach rippling from a native speaker and community member on behalf of Haitian women, children and their families will need the support of our Midwives for Haiti community. We hope you will encourage her work, celebrate Phalonne’s point of view, and embrace this new partnership by helping sponsor more of her visits to us in the future.
See some of Phalonne’s striking images about maternal and infant health in Haiti.
-Words (and photos!) by Cheryl Hanna-Truscott
Note from MFH: If you’d like to support this collaboration, or are in Haiti and would like to hire Phalonne as a photographer, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.