Jamaica – Beaches, resorts, jerk chicken…ahhh.

That’s what most people think when someone says they’ve been or are going to Jamaica, but there is so much more to the island and it’s people.  I got the chance to visit in 2010 and do some volunteer work Kings Cross.

We spent time working with students at a local school and helping to repaint their church. Come to find out that in Jamaica, applying a fresh paint job to your home, business or church is part of how you bring in the new year. A way of starting the new year fresh and clean.

We also got a chance to volunteer and visit with some of the outcast elderly. Given the state of the country’s economy, many times families abandon the elderly because they are barely surviving as is. The care and needs of the elderly tend to cause a burden. A lot of the homeless population ends up being the elderly. Luckily there are many facilities in the country designed to take them in and care for them. While not as extravagant as our nursing homes, they have food, a place to sleep and a community of people around them. 

There is also a problem with sick children being abandoned as well. One of the sites we visited was Mustard Seeds, a community for HIV-positive children. It was amazing to see how much life these children who’ve been outcast had. Another stop was the St. John Bosco’s Boys Home. Many of the boys there had committed crimes or been abandoned for other reasons. Part of what we learned was that many were forced to commit the crimes by family members or local gangs. Once in trouble, many just gave up on them. St. John Bosco’s worked with the boys on learning trades and making a plan for bettering themselves so when they left the home, they’d have a chance.

Shooting these populations, though, often led to issues. Many of these communities don’t want their members photographed/filmed. There’s a lot of red-tape and having to have shots approved before and after you take them. When I asked why there was so much concern about photos being taken, a lot of the answers were what you’d expect. Some families feel ashamed because of a sick child or placing an elderly family member in a home. Protecting identities, no clearances (they are still people with rights) and so on.

The reason that shocked me the most though was fear of exploitation. The facilities didn’t want photographers coming to visit and using these images just to further their careers. Showing up and shooting poor black and brown people living in squalor and then returning home saying “See what I shot!” As photographers we often want to show people the world around us, but how often do we think about what it says about us and the places we’re displaying. Are you there just to document poverty or are you there to do something about it? And yes, it depends on why your there. I get that a photojournalist IS there to just document. But as a traveler or a travel photographer to impoverished areas, what’s the purpose of the images you’re taking? Do you plan on telling someone’s story or just telling yours?

I think we often get lost in creating powerful images and forget that there is often a story behind them that people should hear. Not your story, but the story of the who, what, when, where and WHY of your photographs.

It’s like stealing if we don’t go the extra distance to make sure that we follow the images with a story that, if nothing else, tells the plight of the impoverished we’re documenting. It really made me think when shooting in Jamaica and has had an impact on me when I travel and shoot. Making your photos about more than just the image you’ve ‘taken’. Making them about the story as well. We all have a story to tell and spreading those stories is far more important than just clicking the shutter.

I think HONY is one of the best examples of doing this. Not only are the pictures compelling, but the stories help to bring us all together. That’s story that came through in Jamaica, after interviewing and talking with the people I met and interviewing the students I traveled with…togetherness is how we get through this life.

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