Worth a thousand words: how photos give our kids their history

We're forever grateful to many talented photographers who help tell the story of our orphanage.
Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom

February 24, 2022

Each issue from “Life at the Orphanage” chronicles the joy and lessons learned among 50+ children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Our kids at the orphanage don’t know much about technology, but they sure do know cameras.

Although we lack computers, television or decent internet, pretty much everyone who comes to visit brings a camera. Might be an iPhone. Might be an SLR. Might be one of those big fancy things with a long lens. Might be a cardboard disposable.

But everyone wants to take a picture, and for the most part, we are OK with it. Even our youngest kids now know you smile when someone yells “souri!” (the Creole word) and then you curl around and look at the person’s screen to see the results. In a place that has very few mirrors, it’s the best way to check yourself out.

Over the years, we’ve been blessed to have some amazing photographers visit our little third-of-an-acre facility. They’ve captured the spirit, the color, the happiness and the shabbiness.

Some were quite accomplished. Rick Smolan, the award-winning TIME, LIFE and National Geographic photographer who created the “Day in the Life of series has been to the orphanage, bringing his family with him. He left behind a few cameras that were way too good for us. We used them anyway.

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Photo credit: Rick Smolan // Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti

Rick took some incredible portraits of our kids and captured moments (some in mid-air) that we would otherwise never get. The kids hung all over him. “Let me see! Let me see!” they yelled, every time he clicked his shutter.

Other photographers have dropped in as well, including Romain Blanquart, Mike Shore and Jenny Risher out of Detroit, along with numerous cameramen with local and national TV shows.

Last week, we were joined by Brian Kelly, a photographer and video director out of Grand Rapids, and his videographer Mark Andrus. They brought a good deal of equipment, lenses, camera bodies, a steady-cam harness. You might think a team like that, loaded up, would cause a disturbance or a distraction amongst 54 kids.

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Rick Smolan clowns around with Variola // Romain Blanquart, photojournalist and the co-founder of Capturing Belief, a youth mentoring program in Detroit that works with students at our SAY Detroit Play Center.

But somehow, with all the general mayhem that takes place in the yard, the new guys just blended in. You glanced around and there was a street hockey game, there were kids coloring at picnic tables, there were Brian and Mark taking pictures, and there were babies sleeping in the gazebo. It all just meshed together.

I guess I am partial to having good photographers visit because like many parents and guardians, I want to chronicle our children’s lives. Their growth. Their development. As you get older, the moments become so precious, and being able to see them again, especially when we are away from Haiti, brings us great joy.

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Photographer Brian Kelly with kids from Have Faith Haiti

Brian had been here once before, seven or eight years earlier. During that time, he had most of the kids take portraits by a narrow palm tree in the middle of our yard.

The tree has since been removed to make room for the kids to play. But Brian was able to get some of the kids to pose in the same spot, which allowed us to see their astounding growth in side by side photos. If you want to get a real sense of how fast kids grow up, this is how you do it.

Some feel you can overdo photographs with kids, and there’s merit to that argument. But I confess, I love having pictures after the fact. Over New Year’s, I showed the kids photos from 10 years earlier, and the shrikes of laughter and delight I heard made any inconvenience worthwhile.

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Videographer Mark Andrus shows the little ones a view from the lens

Photographs for some may be a series of selfies you could easily do without. But for our kids, who have no access to their baby photos, don’t have a school photographer, will never have prom shots, and can’t get to the local portrait artist, these photos by visitors are more than quick snaps. They are history. Their individual histories. Their shared histories.

There’s a country song by a singer named Richard Laviolette that has these lyrics:

My childhood’s a blur somehow

One day I’ll forget me now

I might need someone to tell

My story when I’m gone

These photographs, and the men and women who have taken them, will tell our story and the story of the orphanage when we’re gone. For that, how can I not be grateful?

(Click the Instagram post above to see then-and-now photos of Bettinie, Esterline, and Danois, taken 10 years apart by Brian Kelly.)

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