For the past 10 years, Sharp Park-based photographer Jennifer Cheek Pantaleon has been paying regular visits to Haiti. Her goal was neither to capture the chanting mobs and the burning tires nor to tan on the palm-lined beaches. Instead, Pantaleon went to Haiti to teach the multitude of children who inhabit its streets to take another look at their world — through the lens of a camera.
In this small nation ravaged by poverty and political turmoil, children and teens make up 45 percent of the total population and are often the first ones to suffer. Thousands of orphans and children from poor families are driven to the streets to sleep, beg for food, and find petty jobs to survive. Some of them find temporary refuge in group homes, where foreign volunteers like Pantaleon can meet them and try to help.
Pantaleon came to the island in January 1997 to take pictures of daily life, but ended up visiting a well-known group home, "LaFanmi Selavi," set up in Port-au-Prince in 1986 by Haiti’s former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide when he was a priest. There, she gave impromptu photography lessons to a group of children who didn’t know anything about the art form.
"It’s amazing what kind of creativity comes out of kids if they have the resources they never would have had," she says.
Pantaleon enjoyed the experience so much that she knew she had to come back. In the summer, she returned to the home and showed the kids a slide-show of photographs she has taken during her previous trip. She set up a projector in the playground and paid for the generator out of her own pocket.
"The kids went absolutely nuts - they’ve never seen their photos before," remembers Pantaleon. "They became much more interested in photography. The interest was sparked and it just continued."
Since then, she has been coming back to Haiti once or twice a year to lead photography workshops. At the beginning, when there weren’t enough cameras for everyone, Pantaleon made cardboard cutouts to teach her students "to respect the art of photography." She also taught them the history of the art form, the basics of composition as well as how to hold the camera, look at light, and approach people on the street. She also showed examples of photographs in Haitian tourism brochures and newspapers and invited successful local photographers to lead the kids by example.
"We do what we can, so that the kids get an opportunity to learn something they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to learn," explains Pantaleon.
One of her favorite students was the 9-year-old Papouche. "He would get mad at me because with street kids, people go once, make promises and then never come back, so kids don’t get attached," she says. "But I kept coming back and eventually Papouche and I became friends."
By then, Pantaleon already had experience working with at-risk children. In the late 1980s, after working as a photojournalist, she began taking pictures for children’s advocacy agencies in the Tenderloin district in San Francisco, which eventually turned into a documentary project and an exhibit. Later on, she also taught photography to homeless teenagers living on San Francisco’s streets.
Yet what she encountered in Haiti was beyond her expectations and often beyond her control. After several years of teaching, Pantaleon grew attached to a group of kids at "LaFanmi Selavi" only to learn that the home was closing.
"We were hoping to build a darkroom there, but the home closed in 2000 and 500 kids were back on the street," she said.
For Pantaleon, that meant that she no longer had a home base from which to teach her core group of photography students. After the closing, she lost track of many of them - when Papouche hit the streets, she didn’t see him for another three years. Then, at a chance meeting in the city, she ran into him again as he was carrying heavy jugs of water, trying to make a living.
Pantaleon knew that besides the useful lessons of photography that kept the kids occupied and gave them a potentially useful skill set, they also needed financial support. But as a volunteer, Pantaleon could only do so much - she spent a lot of her own money on the workshops and brought care bags with vitamin C candy, combs, and shampoo that her friends donated.
"We were going broke and decided we need to start a non-profit because the need was getting greater and we couldn’t not help," she says.
She and her Haitian husband Guy named the non-profit "Zanmi Lakay," which means friend’s home in Haitian Creole.
"Zanmi Lakay sounded like a safe place, a place you could be with your friends - I like the idea of that," explains Pantaleon. "There are so many things that can happen to you there. But they know they can be safe with us."
Pantaleon continued her photography workshops - sometimes at other group homes and sometimes right on the street. Tall and blond, she stood out on the Haitian streets and many locals knew her as "Jen the photographer."
Back in the Bay Area, she organized donation drives at schools and held sales of art made by Haitian street kids. Through the years, she also kept up with many of her original students - although some kids have since died or disappeared.
Papouche is now 19. Pantaleon says that he is generous and kind, a little shy, and a really good photographer. Recently, he was put up in a rental room to be a good influence on his roommate, a drug addict. In September, Papouche is supposed to go back to school. Although Haitians often go to school until their early 20s, most street children older than 16 are kicked out of group homes to make room for younger charges. During that critical age, they receive almost no support. As a result, many of them have children, starting the cycle all over again.
Before her next trip back to Haiti, Pantaleon is trying to help Papouche and 11 others pay for rent and stay in school. The total sum for 12 of them amounts to $3,000.
"We want to set them up right, so they wouldn’t have to worry about anything and just study," explains Pantaleon. "We’re trying to keep momentum up so they wouldn’t fall back into street life again."
Back in 1997, Pantaleon wasn’t expecting her trip to turn into a mission. Many things have happened since then and she has documented her experience in a multitude of shots that are on her website.
"You don’t see many positive pictures of Haiti - my thing was to show positive pictures and reflect their lives, tell their stories," says Pantaleon. "That’s not how people live everyday - it’s not all violence and burned tires. It’s their life."
To contribute to Zanmi Lakay, go to www.zanmilakay.org or contact Jennifer Pantaleon at 359-6225 or email@example.com