Reflections on a student trip to Haiti

By Michael Longinow, Biola University

To teach visual journalism in Haiti is as much about lenses, tripods and audio levels as it is about the spiritual. My colleagues and I landed in Port-Au-Prince on a Sunday morning at about 9 a.m. The shuttle taking us from the airport to our compound sped by sidewalks packed with vendors selling everything imaginable: fresh food, tires, iron-work, packaged bread, clothing, furniture. And standing out from the crowds were the church-goers: women in bright yellow or blue dresses, men in suits and ties. Some of the well-dressed were on motorcycles or in the makeshift buses comprising a small pick-up truck with a canopy. These were packed with men, women and children at all hours of the day. But this was Sunday morning, and at least a third of those in traveling mode were headed to a worship service.

We were going there to refresh these students’ grasp of shooting and editing video interviews, stand-ups, B-roll. And as we made our way to the compound where we’d live and teach for a few days, I was taken again by the contrast of spiritual atmosphere between this place and the religious worlds I navigate in the United States.

To read the research literature about Haiti one would wonder if Christianity is at all thriving in this country. Voodoo is the dominant culture of spirituality, woven into Roman Catholic traditions of icons and liturgy. Voodoo mixed with Christian awareness is in the music, in the public artwork — a kind of atmosphere that all Haitians know and live with but few can articulate to Americans with their insistence on concrete lines of socio-cultural demarcation. To most Americans, even I daresay some researchers, it’s either this or it’s this. It can’t be both (variables like that mess up the statistics and data-gathering). But it is both. It’s many things all at once. And that’s what makes it a place of fascinating socio-religious complexity.

What I learned, upon returning from Haiti after our fourth trip, was that I know less now about socio-religious experience — and the pedagogies necessary to navigate it — than when I began talking with these Haitian students about visual journalism done with an ethical perspective. In August, I’ll be returning to Haiti to do a capstone course in ethics with them, and the teaching will be a challenge. Media ethics is familiar to me. But I don’t speak Creole.

That’s been a barrier since Day 1, but the longer I’m with these students, the more I see the language barrier is deeper than just using the correct words. Even if I found those words, I’m a half-Mexican, half-Ukrainian male who grew up in greater Chicago and now teach in Southern California. I don’t get what it means to be Haitian. I don’t know poverty like these students do — or what that poverty feels like juxtaposed with the wealth of some in Haiti. I don’t know the ways that faith and spiritual experience live out in the daily experience of the women carrying massive loads on their heads, the crowds of young men huddled around small motorcycles near alleyways, or the little children lifting one side of heavy crates being hoisted onto battered trucks. This is a country whose belief systems trace back centuries mixing traditions of other countries on other continents. Haitians are aware of spirits and spiritual influence in ways we in the U.S. are not — or have awareness of only rarely. They fear, for good reason, the evil personified that stalks the darkness around them. And some have an awareness of God, even an experience with God, that makes them courageous in their faith.

What I have learned most from my experiences with Haiti is that when I take students there, I must take them slowly, guiding them into the socio-religious encounters in ways that respect the people and the complex richness of their faith traditions. To be reductive, to be in a hurry about this, is to defeat the purpose of going at all.

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