I think I have mentioned this in previous posts, but when I was accepted to Peace Corps back in 1999 many people asked me if I would be working as a photographer since at the time I was a photojournalist. I had worked at several newspapers on staff and also freelance before I decided to take a break from that career and serve in Peace Corps.
Although I was not going into Peace Corps to work as a photographer I did not leave my photography skills at home although I definitely was looking for a break from the daily grind that my photojournalism career had become.
Photography and visual communication in general is a good skill to have for Peace Corps volunteers. With the technology available now I think more and more volunteers are visually documenting their service than ever before.
This past year I returned to Jamaica to do a Response service, this time working in a field related to my career. I worked as a video documentation specialist for the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition.
During my first month on island the latest corp of two-year volunteers swore in. The swearing-in ceremony was a big deal as it was in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps Jamaica. The ceremony was held at the ambassadors residence and I was invited.
One observation I had about the occasion was the number of newly sworn-in volunteers who were making short videos with their iphones or other video devices, basically doing on the spot interviews about how they felt to now be Peace Corps volunteers. I don’t know if these volunteers continued this kind of thing throughout their service or not. It just made me think how much has changed in the short time I was a volunteer.
As I mentioned before I didn’t originally serve in the capacity as a visual journalist, but I did use my photography as a volunteer. I originally got my camera out to document my surroundings. I lived in a very beautiful locale - Lluidas Vale, which is a high valley in the heart of Jamaica filled with a sugar cane plantation and surrounded by the Juan de Bolas mountains.
The other thing I used my camera for was informal community mapping and to get to know people in the community. I would walk around with my camera during my time off from work at the school where I served. Inevitably people would call me over and ask me to take their picture (or sometimes to tell me not to take their picture). Either way it provided an opening for me to talk to people. Plus allowed me to make some great photos that I cherish to this day.
As a Crisis Corps volunteer back in Jamaica again in 2006 I also used photography some as part of my service. I took the photo below while assisting with a project for my agency the Ewarton Community Development Action Committee. The president of the agency knew I was an accomplished photographer, and by then I had a digital camera (when I originally served in Jamaica I was still using a film camera, so things were not as immediate). I was asked by the agency president to accompany to her to a residence of a senior citizen in the community to document his living arrangement so that they could get assistance for this man from one of the NGO’s. The man was elderly and lived in a one-room shack with no amenities.
After an introduction I walked around and took photos from every angle to show the needs of this man. I knew that the photos were solely for documentation purposes, but I also wanted to take a photo of the man and at first I was a little reluctant to ask. After talking for a bit I asked if he minded if I took a portrait of him. I don’t think he had ever been asked that before. He said it was okay and posed for me. Below is the photo of the old man. I think it shows his dignity and puts a human face on situation. The photos I took went along with an application to get better housing, and it went through. A more modern concrete structure that was safer and more sanitary was built giving this proud man a better roof over his head.
Last time I was in Ewarton this past year I asked about this man. He has since passed away. I am glad to have met him and made this lasting portrait of him.
I’m sure other RPCVs have similar experiences and photos of host country people who they have lived amongst and come to know in a way you would know people if you were merely traveling in another country.