Steven L. Smith

individual
Life Dates:
b. 1953
Nationality:
American
Artist Biography:
Dr. Steven L. Smith is a faculty member in the GVSU School of Social Work in addition to his avocation as a social documentary photographer. He has trained with numerous master photographers and does freelance work along with incorporating the visual arts into his courses whenever possible to illustrate human needs and the human condition. About Haiti artworks: My sabbatical in 2012 involved visiting Haiti to photograph the people and learn their stories about the devastation in and around Port-au-Prince following the earthquakes and aftershocks in January, 2010. The best estimates of devastation include 220,000 lives lost, 250,000 homes destroyed and 30,000 commercial buildings flattened. I have been involved with the Hurricane Katrina rebuilding over the past seven years; as destructive and horrible as that was, this was devastation at an entirely unprecedented scale. I visited, photographed, and worked at several locations during my trip. Most compelling to me were the “tent cities”, such as Camp Afca, in and around Port-au-Prince. These so-called “tent cities” sprang up on the very rubble of the decimated homes and buildings after the earthquake. Immediately after the earthquake, an estimated 1.5 million individuals lived in these tents. As of April, 2013, an estimated 320,000 remain in these makeshift lean-to’s and tents (International Organization for Migration; Amnesty International). The population is now comprised primarily of women caring for their children; their men were either killed or have gone to other areas to look for work. Unemployment in Port-au-Prince is 85% and in the rest of Haiti unemployment averages 40%. I also spent time at a school for so-called “restavek” children. These are children who have been given up into indentured servitude in Haiti by their parents or guardians in exchange for the promise of food and education. It is a horrible, complicated problem which the government does not officially acknowledge, yet there are an estimated 300,000 children that have been sold into this type of slavery, primarily in and around Port-au-Prince (www.rfahaiti.org). Finally, I spent time at a private orphanage, which is how the majority of adoptions are handled in Haiti, because they lack basic governmental systems for the public good or social work. The children were amazing, and their stories were heartbreaking. This photographic essay focuses on the residents of Camp Afca, one of the many “tent cities” in and around Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In my many conversations with (primarily) mothers in their tents, I was struck by how they tried to create order out of chaos, how they shared clean water and whatever food might be available on a given day with those around them, and how they hoped their children would see a better future. There is no way to avoid seeing the damage; the devastation is visible in every direction. What emerged through my time in Camp Afca, however, was an amazing human spirit, hope, and optimism that life will go on. There is worry, there is pain, there is tragedy that is discussed without much emotion. These children and families are survivors, at times worried and concerned yet not embittered by things that would leave most of us shaking our heads in disbelief. The final image is of the mass burial ground of over 200,000 Haitians, which the residents call "Titanyen". There is also a translated marker here with the Creole words roughly translated as "We never forget you". The crosses in this image are makeshift pieces of burned wood and charcoal placed by family members who come to mourn where they believe their loved ones might be buried. It is an eerie place, at once as temporal and fleeting as the crosses marking unknown locations of victims, yet in the other direction looking out over the beautiful blue Caribbean. Beauty juxtaposed with devastation. I hope these photographs convey the beautiful part of Haiti that I found amidst the rubble.