Spotlight on Leah Millis

 

 

TID:

What a touching picture, Leah. Please tell us a little of the backstory of the image.

LEAH:

Thank you so much for having me, I love this blog.

The photograph was taken when I was on a trip to Haiti in the fall of 2010 for a couple of months. This was on the third day I spent hanging out with this great group of Haitian amputee athletes. They’re taking a group shower in the yard next to a church after having just spent the morning practicing in the Haiti heat.

TID:

What made you want to photograph in Haiti and how did you find the soccer team?

LEAH:

Much like many photographers who have spent time in Haiti, I have a bit of a love affair with the country. My story isn’t terribly different from others. My father and I traveled to Haiti when I was a senior in high school on a medical mission trip with Colorado Haiti Project. My mother had already been to Haiti multiple times, my sister had been with her once. So I kind of grew up hearing about Haiti and my parents said I had to be at least 16 before they would let me go. I finally went my senior year and brought my camera and I was completely shocked by what I experienced and saw. Because I was taking French in high school I could communicate very minimally with some Haitians. This helped with preventing me from romanticizing the Haitian people the way many privileged missionaries/volunteers sometimes do. This is a problem that comes up often in developing countries when people of privilege visit them. It's easy to say things like, "it's amazing how happy these people are despite the fact that they have nothing!" when you can't speak their language. Some people refer to this as the "noble savage" characterization. This dehumanizes people of lesser economic status, making them into grateful caricatures who are somehow above their suffering.

I heard that they were hungry, that I was considered “gros” or fat by their standards because I ate three meals a day (and it wasn’t an insult, it was a compliment). I was pulled into someone’s home where they told me a girl was sick and it was assumed that because I was white and I could baseline communicate with them that I could help her. The girl had asthma and she depended on this medical mission’s annual trips for her one inhaler a year. These experiences combined, with the fact that I took photographs the whole time, changed my world. My sister came back from Haiti and decided to become a doctor. I came back and decided to become a photojournalist. So, I’ve always had this connection with the country and I’ve always felt that I owe Haiti my time and consideration. I always knew I would return for a bit of a more extended stay and the earthquake moved that up in my timeline.

I wanted to go to Haiti more to learn more about the country, the culture, the people, the language and then I was hoping on top of that I might be able to shoot some stories. I actually stumbled across the soccer playerswithin maybe a week or two of my arrival. I was at a missionary home and the missionaries mentioned these guys trying to raise money so that they could travel to the Amputee Football World Cup in Argentina. He had described seeing this one guy who didn’t have any hands but he was still very adept at using his cell phone. Of course I jumped on the story and I was lucky enough to be welcomed by the team.

 

TID:

How did you prepare for the shoot? How much time did you have to work on the project?

LEAH:

Every day shooting with them was an ordeal as anyone who has worked in Haiti knows. I lived in Crois-des-Bouquets which is essentially a suburb of Port-Au-Prince. So my translator, Guerriot, and I would leave my place (depending on if he was able to arrive close to on time) by about 7am via tap tap (public transportation). From there we would take multiple forms of public transportation through traffic to the church that was generously lending space to the team for a practice field in Quisqueya (a neighborhood in Port). Hopefully we would arrive there between 10am-12pm. In America that commute would probably take 20 minutes in a car. I also had a personal policy to typically not bring both of my cameras out with me at once so that if something happened to one while I was out, I wouldn’t be up the creek without a paddle.

That being said, a couple of the days I was shooting with the team, I had brought both cameras because one of them shot video and I wanted to do a video as well. So that day I had both cameras with me and I’m glad I did because this scene happened. Sadly, I only got 10 days with these guys! I found them RIGHT before they left for the U.S. with dreams of going on to Argentina for the World Cup. I absolutely would have stuck with this story my entire two months if I could have.

TID:

How did you earn the trust of the all-male team to allow you to photograph them in such an intimate moment?

LEAH:

This story didn’t come without a few marriage proposals! (Ladies who have worked in Haiti get that one.) I have found that overall, being a female photojournalist has served me well. I tend to get access to both genders across many cultures and I’ve found that people both trust me more more than they might trust men; or they write me off, and underestimate me because I’m a woman. Both outcomes usually yield better access. They were great guys and they were very proud of their team and their athleticism. I think that this is something that transcends cultural barriers: if you show a person that you are interested and committed to their story beyond the surface level, they tend to open up to you. These guys, too, when they were together, had such an amazing attitude about their lives. Even after the earthquake, amputees are very much second or third-class citizens in Haiti.

The shower moment was actually pretty funny. I saw it happening and I pretty much just got right up in there without hesitation. Everyone was more-or-less covered up, but you can imagine… So there I was, this white girl in this group of Haitian guys kneeling in this shower melee. Everyone was laughing at first, but I’m pretty sure I shot this for at least 15 minutes. So after a few minutes they just ignored me. I love the photo so much because it really shows how close these guys were.

TID:

What other challenges did you encounter during the project and how did you overcome them?

LEAH:

My biggest challenges were language and transportation. I was there as a student, with no news organization behind me, funding the whole thing on my own. But paying for a translator was never a question. At that time I had only been there a few weeks and my Creole was nowhere near where it was by the end of my trip. How can you report on a story in which you do not know the language without a translator? It boggles the mind when you see that happening with foreign journalists. Also, the transportation was an ordeal. But you know, you just go with it. That’s Haiti. Sometimes you get in epic traffic jams and you’re a few hours late. Few will hold it against you. Because this was not a breaking news story, I was able to take public transport and save money. I also carried my gear in an old beat-up Rastafarian-colored backpack I had bought at Goodwill before I left. I made sure not to flaunt the fact that I had nice gear with me, which helped.

TID:

Okay, so on to the moment. Please tell us how the scene came together in the moments leading up to image.

LEAH:

The guys had been practicing for hours in the hot Haiti heat. These guys were amazing. They had sub-par gear and very little water. They also had one meal of spaghetti that the church donated to them in the middle of the day after practice and that was all they ate. So they finished practice early that day because they were going to try to get their passports in town. Someone from the church brought out this shower head and attached a hose to it. Then it was kind of a free-for-all. They used their cups to share the water and they passed around maybe one or two bars of soap between everyone. I’ll tell you this, Haitians are very sharp dressers. I still don’t quite understand how they are so good at keeping their clothes so clean. I can’t own a white shirt for very long before I stain it. Also, partially because of the heat, people shower multiple times a day. Everyone wanted to look good for the passport trip.

TID:

What surprised you about the moment?

LEAH:

Something that really touched me was how they helped each other out without even thinking about it, much like a big family. In this photo Francillon, who has a shortened leg, was holding on to Patrick for balance because he didn’t have his crutches with him. That’s why they’re laughing, because he ended up hugging him for balance and then he kind of jokingly put his head down on Patrick’s chest. It really showed their connection and comfort level with each other. Also, friendship can be expressed physically much more openly in Haiti. It’s not uncommon to see two men holding hands out of friendship on the street.

TID:

What have you learned about yourself in the process of making images like this?

LEAH:

I think I learned that it’s always worth it to go the extra mile, to spend the extra hour. Even though the processes of traveling, or getting up early, or crouching in weird, painful positions for long periods of time all suck, they’re worth it. People never cease to amaze and touch me. More than that, I learned that when I push myself outside of my comfort zone, though it may be painful at times, the result is usually pretty fantastic.

TID:

In conclusion, what advice do you have for photographers?

LEAH:

I would challenge a photographer to look deeper than the surface. Spend a little bit of time. You’ll probably uncover something you could have never conceived of when you first thought of the idea or were given the assignment.
 

 

:::BIO:::

Born and raised in Denver, Leah Millis picked up her first SLR camera at the age of 12 and has had one in her hands ever since. Since 2009, Millis has had four different internships across the county and has enjoyed freelancing for national clients. Since March she has relished getting blown around Wyoming at a staff position at the Casper Star-Tribune. Millis recently accepted a job at the San Francisco Chronicle and will be starting there in September. She has been back to Haiti once since the 2010 trip in the fall of 2012 to train Haitian journalists. She dreams of owning land in Haiti someday, the country that will always have her heart.

You can see more of her work here:

http://www.leahmillis.com/

EDITOR'S NOTE:

This week's interview was done by Andrew Lamberson, who is is a freelance photographer and photo editor in Brooklyn, New York. You can read more about him here: www.andrewlamberson.com.

If you'd like to be a guest interview as well, please send an email to logan@imagedeconstructed.com.

All images that appear on The Image, Deconstructed are subject to copyright laws. Any unauthorized use is strictly prohibited. Images on The Image, Deconstructed are used with permission from the copyright holder and are for educational purposes only.