In the aftermath of Haiti's catastrophic earthquake last year, the Western press bombarded the airwaves with images of death, destruction and chaos.
But amid the rubble, orphans armed with disposable cameras captured a much different Haiti -- one in which children smiled, danced and played.
"There's an innocence, an openness to the pictures," said Helen Klisser During, who distributed disposable Fuji Film cameras to 50 children at the Carma House Orphanage near Léogâne, Haiti. "You see the living conditions, but you also see the hope and resilience."
Brought to Connecticut from the epicenter of the earthquake, the images will be on view as part of "Hope in Haiti," a new exhibition at the Westport Arts Center. An opening reception and sale of work will take place on Friday, March 4, to benefit the Carma Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs the orphanage.
Taken three months after the disaster, the images offer a rare glimpse through the lens of Haiti's most vulnerable residents. Rolls of film reveal photos of kids playing outside makeshift tents and huts, mothers holding and nursing their children and faces beaming in the soft glow of the afternoon sun. Structures like Carma House Orphanage, which crumbled during the earthquake, come into view incidentally.
It is telling that the children pointed their cameras at each other, rather than the devastation surrounding them, said Klisser During, director of visual arts at the WAC and curator of "Hope in Haiti."
"They took photos of people and faces, cats and dogs, the day-to-day," she said. "The orphanage is a stone's throw away from a tent city . . . but they chose to focus on positive things."
The exhibit includes 89 pictures by Carma House orphans, alongside Klisser During's post-quake images of Port-au-Prince, and light boxes featuring colorful photos of Haitian tap-tap buses by London photographer Elizabeth Jordan.
In the WAC Studio Gallery, there will be a selection of photographs from Bridgeport Animal Control taken by students at Staples High School entitled "Dog Show." The exhibit will raise awareness on the importance of adoption and the issues surrounding shelter conditions.
By Klisser During's account, the trip to Haiti was a "whirlwind." The journey began last March, during an exhibition of her friend, Jordan's photographs at New York University. It was there that she met Melky Jean, a friend of Jordan's and the sister of Haitian hip hop star, Wyclef Jean. Jordan and Jean, the founder of Carma Foundation, invited Klisser During to accompany them on a trip to the orphanage. She enthusiastically accepted.
"I thought, 'what could I give?'" she recalled, just before stepping on a plane bound for the small island nation. "What's most precious to me is taking pictures, capturing a moment and treasuring that."
Inspired by Zana Briski's 2004 documentary "Born Into Brothels," Klisser During gave out the cameras to the Carma House orphans and asked them to document their lives. None of them had ever used a camera before.
The idea meshed with Jean, the daughter of Haitian immigrants who established Carma Foundation to promote development on Haitian terms. She also thought it would be a great way "to show the world that there is hope in Haiti."
"You look at the smiles of the kids in these photos and you see they are no different from the kids smiling in New York," Jean said. "There are children living in these dire circumstances, but they're still finding a way to smile."
As Klisser During discovered during her trip to Port-au-Prince, that sense of hope wasn't confined to the Carma House orphanage. Despite the death, destruction and chaos, people across the Haitian capital had still found a way to smile, too.
"When you drive through Port-au-Prince, you see the Legislative Palace is collapsed, no one is clearing trash, no one is clearing rubble -- it's so close to chaos," she said. "But when you meet the people one on one, there is still that innocence, that hope. I tried to tell that story."
The Westport Arts Center is at 51 Riverside Ave. "Hope in Haiti" is on view Friday, March 4, through Sunday, May 8. An opening reception will be held Friday, March 4, at 6 p.m. Viewing hours: Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday noon-4 p.m. 203-222-7070, www.westportartscenter.org.
"Hope in Haiti" events:
"¢ Vital Voices Connecticut Council presents Haitian activist and entrepreneur Phelicia Dell on Sunday, March 13 at 4 p.m.
"¢ WACky Family Day, "Music from All Cultures" on Sunday, March 20 at 2 p.m.
"¢ Storytelling: "Gimme Shelter" on Tuesday, March 22 at 7 p.m.
"¢ Westport Cinema Initiative Film Screening: "Wasteland" on Saturday, March 26 at 1 p.m. at the Westport Country Playhouse.