I chose to be in Dessalines, Haiti on this day in April 2013.
I chose to be with this nonprofit organization and its team of seven Americans.
I chose to accompany them, embed with them, document their activities and write their story.
I didn’t think I’d have to choose something else – something more … unsettling, personal.
The Choice to look. Or not.
This was my second international humanitarian reporting trip. My first had been to Kenya five weeks prior. I’d spent five days in the Cherangany bush with professional marathoner and now Member of Parliament Wesley and Tarah Korir and their Kenyan Kids Foundation. I photographed. I interviewed. I wrote.
I’ve made a living on telling people’s stories. I’m a formally trained journalist and I’ve worked in media markets across New Mexico, Texas and Kentucky. I’ve always looked for the stories that might change people’s lives or impact a community.
This calling has its roots in an obscure thrift store in a town whose name I can’t recall. I picked up a book. Its title touched me: Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God. The book’s contents didn’t do much for me and the title is too long, but those 14 words were a compass for my evolving career. In a sort of nostalgic romanticism, I wanted to place my heart alongside a deity’s to bear witness to the injustices borne in our society and the heroism of people solving them.
I chose this profession, and this is why – to deliver a message, to shout for the voiceless, to capture a moment in history. This happened. You cannot deny. I was there. I saw. Here is proof. There is power here in this transference of knowledge. This is the place where ignorance has a chance to be transformed into enlightenment and enlightenment into action and action into change.
So let me tell you the story of Helen who is seeking a scholarship to attend high school in Cherangany. Let me be the platform for the Little Rock Academy – one of the first inclusive schools in Kenya that educates special needs children alongside their peers. Let me write about poverty and hunger in a small western American city. Let me guide a conversation about food deserts. Let me expose a father’s sexual abuse and how he choked his infant daughter to death. Let me hear about the baby who died in that toilet. Let me tell you about a medical clinic on top of an Ethiopian mountain.
Let me read the documents I would never share with my audience. Let me make this easier for them to take. Let me hear the lucid details and decide the ones that no one should have to hear. Let me see the images that make us cringe and the ones I can’t get out of my mind. Let me watch the videos too grotesque for my readers and let me lay awake at night replaying them in my dreams.
I choose to be the filter. I choose to look. I choose to tell you. I want to.
And then Haiti.
I didn’t want to look anymore. I wanted to close my eyes. I wanted to look away.
We’d been there a few days. I photographed the team while they led prayer at a hospital and took supplies to an orphanage. I interviewed a school administrator about their funding problems and how they couldn’t pay their teachers. I jotted down specifics: “Today the team delivered rice to roadside rock smashers.” I talked to a pastor and his wife who ran a school, a bakery, a Bible school and a food program in the slums.
Then the team was asked to visit a man. It was a casual request made while we were eating lunch in our living quarters. The team leader said, “Would y’all go pray for a man who’s dying from cancer? One of our employees, Paulina, took him in and he’s not doing well.”
The team said yes, which meant I said yes.
Paulina walked us through the village of Dessalines to her home – a stone-like structure with an outdoor staircase and a dirt floor courtyard.
I entered the man’s room first. He was lying on a narrow bed under a window. A sheet covered part of his body. The tumor in his neck was protruding out, breaking the skin. There was blood and white. A fly rested on the mass. The man feebly swatted it away. The fly returned.
The room was small, so I stood to the side while the team members filed in. I watched their faces when they saw him for the first time. Most grimaced in pity. None looked away.
The team gathered as close as possible, putting their hands on him. They prayed for him while my camera’s shutter clicked in the background. I chose not to put his tumor in focus.
After praying, there wasn’t much left to do. He was expected to die in a few days.
The team was walking back into Paulina’s courtyard and she asked if they would pray for a woman she’d taken in. The woman had fallen in the streets and broken her leg; she’d been left for dead when Paulina found her and brought her home.
The team said yes, which meant I said yes.
They were led about 10 feet down the outdoor hallway to a small room where the woman lay on a pallet on the concrete floor. There was a plastic bowl and a pitcher of water within reach, though I doubt she was strong enough to lift it herself. Through the thin veneer of a blanket covering her body, we saw her skin stretched tautly over a withering frame. Her legs stuck out from the edge of the blanket and we saw her feet. One was pointed in the wrong direction.
She was dying too, alone within the concrete walls of a merciful stranger’s room. Her life, whatever she had lived, would end here.
The team crowded into the small room. The outdoor staircase was directly behind me, overlooking the room and the woman. I climbed it. I looked down on the scene below me. I raised my camera.
And I froze.
I didn’t want to look anymore. I wanted to look away. I wanted to close my eyes.
I wanted to put my camera down.
Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.
In my quest to partner with the supernatural’s affinity for justice and to journey alongside change makers, I had forgotten one thing:
That what would break his heart and theirs would surely break mine.
That I would be heartbroken in the process of documenting and photographing and interviewing and writing.
That the option to look away – to save myself from this emotional disruption – would be more appealing than my desire to shout from the rooftops for the voiceless: This happened. You must know.
There is a hushed reverence in that sacred space of Choice. There is yourself on one hand and yourself on the other – a wrestling of wills.
I was scared to capture this moment. What is the point? There is nothing that can be done for her. Why should you tell her story?
And there was the other side: Because she is valuable. Because people should know she is here. Because her story matters.
I had about 30 seconds to make my choice.
I chose to look.
I chose to tell her story.
I chose to tell Paulina’s story.
I chose to let my heart be broken.
This is the bravery I encounter in this work.
These are the courageous choices I document. Not mine. Mine are insignificant.
But the choices of people like Paulina and Wesley and Tarah Korir, like Amber and Israel and Dawit and their sisters, like Jon and Angie and their kids, like Joe and Mike and Brooke. Like the mother who wants us to know her dead baby’s name – sweet Jade – and the high schooler who cares for her mother and her disabled sister.
These are extraordinary ordinary people. They are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. They are farmers and doctors and lawyers. They are nurses and students and journalists. They are engineers and artists and musicians.
They are obscure. They are mostly unknown.
Yet they are game changers, trendsetters, and freedom fighters. They say no to injustices and they toil for things like equality, micro funding for small businesses and fair political representation. When they see a problem, they fix it. They run for political office and win. They start something that matters. They encounter fear and self-doubt. They carry on. They are people you would want to meet but probably couldn’t keep up with. They are awake at all hours of the day and night, innovating, thinking and brainstorming. They are exhausting, relentless and unstoppable. They are inspiring and challenging.
They are faced every day with the same thing we are: the reverent silence of Choice – to look away, or to engage.
What are you going to do?