Atlanta photographer's exhibit finds hope in post-earthquake Haiti

'Beauty in the Face of Destruction'

IF YOU GOWhat: "Beauty in the Face of Destruction," photographic exhibit by Ross Oscar Knight.When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, noon-4 p.m. Saturdays.Where: Bessie Smith Cultural Center, 200 E. M.L. King Blvd.Admission: $7 adults, $5 senior citizens and students, $3 ages 6-12.Phone: 266-8658.Website:

On his way to Haiti in late 2010, months after a devastating magnitude-7 earthquake rocked the island nation, Ross Oscar Knight wasn't sure what kind of chaos he would face.

He was visiting to assist a nonprofit's efforts to build an orphanage for children displaced when their parents were killed in the disaster.

Reports of looting and kidnapping painted a bleak picture of the country, a scene exacerbated by the images flooding the news media of collapsed buildings and the tens of thousands who perished.

Even the island's geography was a study in contrasts, the Atlanta-based photographer realized as he flew into the country.

"You see Haiti and the Dominican Republic right next door, and when you look down at the island, you see one side that is lush and green and the other side is just brown," Knight explained. "I was thinking to myself, 'OK, which side am I going to? What am I getting into?' "

Knight, 33, describes himself as "photoculturalist," a self-coined term for a photographer with more emotional investment in his subjects than a photojournalist. In Haiti, he hoped to rediscover a sense of artistic drive by finding a new perspective on the country's effort to rebound.

Leaving the city center for the construction site several hours to the north of Port-au-Prince, Knight shot many photos that captured the apocalyptic devastation. However, he decided these lacked the inspirational perspective he was in search of, so he looked elsewhere. Ultimately, he found it in the country's youngest victims.

"When I got to the area where we were going to build the orphanage and started speaking with the children and some of the people there, that's when I felt a breath of life," Knight said. "At that point, I was going to tell a different type of story."

Certain encounters leapt out at him, especially those that showed childish joy on a background of devastation.

After a week and a half at the construction site, Knight left with about 4,000 images. He sifted through these to find about three dozen that he felt captured the sense of hope and beauty he encountered.

The resulting photo exhibit, "Beauty in the Face of Destruction." will be on display at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center through Nov. 3.

Besides showing a different side of life in post-earthquake Haiti, he said he hopes that those who view his exhibition walk away with an altered perspective of their own lives and a desire to help.

"For me, coming back was emotionally uplifting," he said. "I came back with a renewed sense of wanting to continue helping other people and, when I was here, having a great appreciation of what I have here.

"I want people to look at [the children] and want them to have a chance at life and a chance to be something greater and achieve their dreams."

Chattanooga Times Free Press features reporter Casey Phillips spoke to Atlanta-based photographer Ross Oscar Knight, 33, about his exhibition "Beauty in the Face of Destruction," what he went to Haiti hoping to see and how his experience there altered his perspective on his own life.

CP: How soon after the earthquake did you visit Haiti?

RK: I went in August, and I believe the earthquake happened in January. I think I was looking for the right opportunity. I'm a photojournalist, so any time I have an opportunity to go and photograph, I love to be right there and involved.

For Haiti, in particular, since a lot of my photography when I first started off shooting involved weddings, multicultural weddings, I photographed a lot of Haitian weddings with other cultures - Puerto Rican, Indian and Pakistani. It was mixed weddings, so I used that as a way to explore cultures.

Since I shot so many Haitian weddings, one of the way I honor my clients is by learning more about their culture in their own country. Many of the people I photographed in the past five or six years were very supportive of my trip after I mentioned it.

When I become stagnant in my photography, when I've lost inspiration, I find that when I leave the U.S. and go out and travel - whether I'm helping a nonprofit organization like in Haiti or not - I find a renewed sense of drive and creativity and artistic nature.

When I heard about the earthquake, I did wait for a while, and then I heard from a good friend of mine who was working with an organization he started called A Home in Haiti, where they were going down to build an orphanage. We talked, and he invited me to come along on the trip to shoot the ground breaking of the orphanage they were constructing and also to be involved in the building as well. That's why I went down.

I made my own decision not to photograph all the rubble and toppled buildings and people who were sitting on top of strewn tires and those types of things. I wanted to photograph more of the children and the beauty to get a different story of Haiti than other works I'd seen. Everyone was showing the devastation, and I was like, "You know, there is still a lot of life and great things happening, despite the misappropriation of funds and other things that had Haiti in the spotlight."

CP: How long were you there? Was this one trip or multiple ones?

RK: I was there for about a week and a half. Everything I shot for that particular show was shot in that week. I do have more images that I will display, probably in a different show with a different title, but that show was all shot on one trip.

CP: Did you go to Haiti intending from the start to concentrate on the beauty you saw instead of the devastation or was that a direction you opted for after you arrived?

RK: It was a culmination. Before I went down, I definitely thought about how I would tell the story. Since I was going down to photograph the building of an orphanage, it was going to be something positive. When we started driving through the cities and drove several hours up to where we were building the orphanage, I saw a lot and photographed a lot. There were still fires and people riding around in military convoys and construction going on, which was awkward. I photographed some of it, but it didn't feel good. It wasn't inspiring at all.

I thought to myself, "These are some of the same images I've seen in the media. This is what I've seen on CNN and in Huffington Post. What makes my story different?" When I got to the area where we were going to build the orphanage and started speaking with the children and some of the people there, that's when I felt a breath of life.

At that point, I knew for sure that not only would I photograph the building of the orphanage and what was going on in the country at the time, I was going to tell a different type of story, which was I ended up titling it: Beauty in the Face of Destruction.

The future of the country are these children. So many of them were displaced from their homes because their parents were killed and were moved there, and it was beautiful to see the spirit and the life they had.

I spoke to some of them about their dreams of the future and what they wanted to do when they grew up. Some of them said they wanted to stay in Haiti and some of them said they wanted to leave. They were saying, at the age of six or seven or eight, and they sounded so much older.

CP: Did you include any of their stories or explanatory material to accompany the shots?

RK: I do. There are small snippets. All the photos can be viewed on my site, I have small pieces or snippets. One of the images is called "Leap of Faith" of a little boy who was jumping off a porch, which I captured and thought was symbolic of the children there and of his life. There's another one that is the title of the show, which is a girl I found off the island of Tortuga.

With each of them, I have these small stories. The stories don't always go into depth about what the children were actually saying to me because that's not what I was going for, but I talked about what I observed about the children.

It was really a challenge for me to decide whether I wanted to add writing or captions with these images because I wanted the viewer to come to their own conclusions. I wanted to let them see the images and let them figure it out for themselves. Just before the first time I exhibited in 2010, I decided to add those captions. Some people read them, and some people choose not to.

CP: Did you go there expecting to see the country rejuvenated? Did you anticipate the beauty or was that a surprise?

RK: I think it took me by surprise. I thought that I was definitely was going to come into this war-torn country when we landed and had security and handlers who took us into the right places because there had been several reports of looting and people being kidnapped.

Once we drove away from the city center and moved up into the northern portion toward the mountains, it was amazingly beautiful and lush and green. When you fly into Haiti, you see Haiti and the Dominican Republic right next door. When you look down at the island, you see one side that is lush and green and the other side is just brown. I was thinking to myself, "OK, which side am I going to? What am I getting into?"

When we got into the northern areas, I was very, very surprised at the beauty I saw in the environment. But the beauty in the children - I love photographing children - I wasn't as surprised by that and the beauty of their spirit. That wasn't a surprise.

CP: What was the most striking thing you saw?

RK: When I was riding with a convoy on a truck that is called a "tap tap" because you tap the truck and it slows down so you can jump on. I got on and we were driving toward what appeared to be a lake, and we weren't slowing down at all. We drove directly into this lake, so I figured out eventually that it was a shallow pool of water, but it was very, very large.

What was surprising was that we were driving through it, and there were people in it doing all sorts of things. I saw people bathing and washing clothes and scooping water up to take home to their homes to drink or use in the preparation of meals. Here I was, and we were driving through it with the exhaust and all those things.

I've been in some third world countries, but it was very surprising to see the people there who had little to nothing, who had to use this one pool of water for their life needs, for everything. That was a reality check for me. I remember that moment altogether.

Another one was when I stayed in Haiti, I was staying at the Haiti Christian Mission. I didn't bring a tent, but I was able to borrow one, but I wasn't in any type of luxury accommodations. I was on the top of a two-story cement building up on the roof, and we had some seriously bad storms were there, and I thought my tent was going to fly off at one point.

I was up there and uncomfortable because I was sleeping on concrete, but one night, I looked off the roof, and I could see people in the streets. Some of them were just laying there on the road with cars going by, not benches or anything, no tent or cover or shelter. I thought to myself, "Here I am, and I'm uncomfortable and my back is hurting, but there are people who have it 100 times worse than me who are just 100 yards from me."

It was life-changing and surprising to witness that, that people were not even inside a concrete structure, just out in the open, who just woke up in the morning and started walking.

CP: You described yourself as a photojournalist. Was it hard to maintain emotional distance being in a country and seeing people who had been through such hard times?

RK: I'm really glad you brought this up because I used the word photojournalist earlier, but starting at the end of last year, I coined a term to describe what I am, which is a photoculturalist instead of a photojournalist.

Photojournalist are supposed to step back and have an objective view and shoot what they see. My experience is very different. I call myself a photoculturalist because I like to do ethnographic research, and ethnographers actually embrace a culture. They are participant observers.

When you're doing that, you learn about the people and connect with them in such a way that you eat what they eat and stay in one of their homes so you understand them and can photograph them in that way. My photography has become more like that.

In Haiti, yes, I had somewhat of an emotional distance, but I spent time with these children so much in their own space that they were comfortable with me being there. They got to a point where one of my photographs is called "Unguarded" that is just of me and a little boy I ended up spending about an hour and a half with. Everyone else left, and it was just me and this one little boy, and I photographed him. We did had to have an emotional connection at some point in order for me to photograph him.

There was an emotional disconnection just for me to go day to day and not just break down and start crying - which I did a couple of times - but at the same time, that's how I capture the things that I do. I feel like I get to the point where I'm interacting with the subject and they let down their guard and become somewhat camera unaware. It's not about the camera; it's about who they are.

CP: When you were there, what was your strongest artistic impulse and what were you seeing that most often drew your photographer's eye?

RK: I think maybe what drew my eye a lot was the colors down there. That, along with a lot of the details I saw. There are rich colors throughout Hait and the Caribbean islands, and I did capture a bit of that. There are only a few of my images, maybe four or five images out of 30, that are actually black and white. Yeah, black and white can be beautiful, but with the color down there, I was really drawn to the contrasting colors.

And the lighting was different down there. I felt like I couldn't take a bad picture. When I'm in the U.S. and shooting, depending on the climate and where you're at, lighting can look different in different places. Down there, it was beautiful. Everywhere I shot, it seemed to have this even tone, even when it was hot, with beautiful light and beautiful color. It made it easy to photograph. Some of the shots were second nature. I didn't have to twist and contort my body too much to try and find good lighting. I could just capture things as they were.

CP: What do you want people to walk away from the exhibition to be thinking or feeling?

RK: I want them to walk away thinking that the job of rebuilding Haiti is not done. We have these hot topics and things that are in our news media that come up, whether it's a hurricane or an earthquake or some type of natural disaster, and when it's hot, it's hot and people give. But Haiti is still in dire need of help in order to rebuild.

Another thing I want them to walk away with is a different impression of what's happening. Instead of remembering that there are certain officials down there who have misappropriated funds, I want them to remember that there are hundreds of thousands of children down there without their parents. They're just there and living in orphanages. I want people to look at them and want them to have a chance at life and a chance to be something greater and achieve their dreams.

CP: When you left, did you feel uplifted or depressed?

RK: I was somewhere in the middle. I went down to Haiti thinking that I was going to do this great deed and help. What I found more than anything was that I was uplifted by the people down there.

I realized I have so many material goods here in the U.S., Really, the people here who consider themselves in the lower class have it 100 times better than the people I saw down there. As an American, so many of us live in such excess that it's crazy.

I would see children and I wouldn't always recognize their faces, but the way I recognized them is that they had the same clothes on every day. It was the same outfit, one outfit, and I came down with 16 different options for what to wear, so I just started giving things away. I had four different kinds of shoes. I took all that stuff down there, and most of that stuff I left there. It was almost an emotional release that I could just give and give. I have at least 15 pairs of shoes back home. I had a closet full of clothes and others in storage, and these kids had one outfit.

Another thing that was spiritually uplifting for me was that every morning that I woke up, I didn't just wake up on my own. There was a church across the dirt road from where I was sleeping on top of the roof, and at 5 a.m., I was awoken by singing. A good bit of people were there, maybe 100, and they would come to their chapel and sing. Sometimes, it felt like they had church services that I kid you not felt like they went on all day long. I woke up to the sound of this choir singing, and it just sounded heavenly. To wake up to this singing and the beauty of the water and the ocean was amazing.

For me, coming back was emotionally uplifting. I came back with a renewed sense of wanting to continue helping other people and when I was here, having a great appreciation of what I have here.

CP: Once you had the photos in hand, what was your litmus test for judging whether a shot should be included in the exhibition?

RK: It took me hours of looking through the footage. I shot over 4,000 images. My litmus test was images I could remember I emotionally connected with a subject and that truly told the story.

I had the name Beauty in the Face of Destruction. While I was down there, I thought, "This is it. This is what I have to show. This is the story I have to tell." So I wrote out what that meant to me, and the photograph had to further that statement.

There's one print called "My Brother's Keeper" of two young boys who are hugging one another standing next to a tree, and one looked very confident and the other looked frightened. That was beautiful to me.

There was a little girl who is lying in the dirt. She came to me three days in a row at the build site and wanted me to take a picture of her, but I she kept coming back and I wouldn't be able to photograph her. The last day, she came to me with these yellow flowers in her hand and in her hair, and we walked over to a tree, and she lay down for me to take her picture. Her skin was very dark, and the contrast of the yellow flower and the blue in her shirt - that contrast and her in that moment and how we connected was beautiful. I looked for that contrast any time.