In February 2008, my partner Alexi Motta and I, Charles Bergman, will move to the Dominican Republic to enter into what promises to be an exciting near-year of living and working among two impoverished communities near the large city of Santiago. One, Franco Bido, is a rural community of coffee farmers living a traditional agrarian lifestyle. The other, Batey Libertad, is composed of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent, many of whom arrived to work in nearby sugar plantations. Both are gravely impoverished and face formidable systemic obstacles such as lack of quality health care and education and low and unreliable wages. Distinct to Franco Bido is the injustice of the coffee economy, in which they have only limited access to market, no guaranteed prices, and little chance to demand their rights. Unique to Batey Libertad is the legal and racial discrimination they face as Haitians migrants or Dominicans of Haitian descent.
We hope in our time there to be of aid in whatever fashion the communities' needs demand. (Although we are going on our own initiative, we do have some connections to non-profits operating in these and similar communities. They are our "in" to the communities and will serve as something of a support network.) Our most ambitious project, however, we call "Community Empowerment by PhotoVoice." The thrust of the idea is that community members, provided with cameras and photographic training, can use the lens as their "eye" to identify problems and signs of hope in their surroundings, and the photos as their "voice" to claim and share such concerns. This is an idea that has been enacted in other impoverished communities to great success. (I, Charles, have attempted it with Latino high school students in Watts, California.) Ideally, once concerns are identified, the project will lead to increased community action on behalf of positive transformation of their lives and environments. Even if no specific change occurs directly out of the PhotoVoice project, it will have achieved the great benefit of giving impoverished persons the tools to express their own social and artistic visions.
We shall facilitate this project with workshops to be held in conjunction with community leaders. Some will focus on the specifically technical training of photography. Others will be oriented towards awareness and discussion of structural injustices that inflict the communities, so that persons may more readily perceive and capture their effects through the camera lens. Later we will move to conversations about the results of the project, i.e. the photos themselves, and ponder how they might influence how persons think about and act in their communities. For example, photos might reveal that litter and trash are an eyesore and health threat in the community, which in turn might encourage participants to organize monthly clean-ups. More dramatic is an example suggested from real events: a young male inhabitant of Batey Libertad (where I, Charles, have spent time before), told me what a difference a camera would have made when Dominican police forces raided their community in May 2005. They roughly rounded up and deported hundreds of persons, many without regard to the fact that they actually had legal Dominican residence and documentation. Photos could capture and publicize such human rights abuses if they were to happen again in the future, which is unfortunately still a possibility.
Withstanding the potential for such events, however, the main motive and hope for this project is the empowerment of marginalized persons and communities in the Dominican Republic. Secondarily is the expectation that the tangible results of such empowerment, the photos, could be used to express their plight and their resilience to sympathetic U.S. citizens. (This might occur through the marketing arms of the non-profit organizations, as well as through our own letters and online blogs.) "Community Empowerment by PhotoVoice" is therefore the most ambitious specific project to arise from our desire to accompany and aid these communities in the Dominican Republic.