Earlier this year, I expressed to a friend my interest in using photography to help missions and non-profit work. He, in turn, told me about an opportunity: 2 weeks in the D.R., 30 people reaching out to orphans, prostitutes, people living in poverty, and using my camera to capture it.
Despite my growing desire to travel and to use photography in a photojournalistic capacity, I was on the fence about going for some time (mostly due to finances). But with the encouragement of many friends, I finally decided to just go.
Having gone to the Philippines a couple of times by that point, I was less anxious about getting used to the flow of life there. But this time I would be a little bit closer. I'd be amongst the people, seeing what they saw, feeling a minuscule fraction of what they felt, communicating, and getting to know their world...one that I only understood on a surface level.
We landed in Santiago, arriving to a very a rainy Dominican Republic. There was the familiar sight and feel of the humid, crowded pick-up area, people waiting for taxis and buses, and gearing up for the drive across the countryside to our destination. For us, that destination was Sosúa, a city on the northern coast, where we would be meeting with Mike and Terica Williams, missionaries to Sosúa, who have been serving the people there with their kids for over 5 years.
I wasn't entirely sure what to focus on when I looked through my viewfinder for the first time. As a street photographer, I defaulted to shooting from a distance, trying to get random candid activity. But I wanted to go deeper. I had to if I was going to help promote a cause.
Sosúa is the heart of human trafficking in the Dominican Republic. Russian mafia operate in the D.R. as a trafficking ground. A large part of Mike and Terica's ministry involved helping out to women and young girls stuck in the trafficking industry by teaching skills and trades as an alternative to working on the street. Young girls get caught up in, what Mike called, the "Dominican fairytale," that if they worked as a prostitute, they would meet a westerner who would take them away to a life in Europe or the States. It's a pull that has left many many young women enslaved to the industry.
Their ministry also consisted of bringing food and clean water to surrounding villages and the local garbage dump, home building programs, and mentoring youth in the local community center alongside two more missionary familes: Daniel and Judith from Mexico and Jose and Coralia from Bolivia. Their ministry, Cups of Cold Water, had a mantra: "Rescue a child, save a family, do it again tomorrow," the epitome of their mission and their commitment to it. For them, the realties of the hardships the people of the D.R. faced were real, close, and continually before them.
Whenever I explore a place for the first time, I feel like each place I see or person I meet is only a part of a story, one that I have to try to put together little by little. One merely tries to reconvey the affect how a place/person/subject had on himself. I wasn't exactly sure how I felt at that time, and I was still digging...
As we went from village to village with the rest of the team, I was able to use what little Spanish I had learned from high school and college to converse with the people and learn a little bit more about my surroundings. Families would invite you into their homes, shared food and drink, and took pleasure just in conversation and sharing their lives. I only wish that my Spanish would have been better so I could have communicated on a deeper level.
No matter where you go, there is a big difference between being a tourist and dwelling amongst the people. You never really know a place or a culture until you've chosen to venture into the thick of it, at least to some degree. Because of the nature of our work, it allowed us to see, in depth, the struggles that Dominicans and Haitian refugees dealt with on a day-to-day basis.
Our first weekend in the D.R., Mike had a special assignment for us in Muñoz, a village made up mostly of Haitian refugees. The village had recently burned down due to a fire caused by gasoline running through the village from the motorcycles. From what I was able to gather from the people there, this was the fourth time that a fire like this one had broken out in that village.
66 homes were lost in the fire. For some the concrete foundation was all that was left, and for others nothing but ash. The fires had eaten up literally everything that they had. Government did little to nothing to help those people in the direness of their situation. One could only get by with the help of friends.
Mike and the team brought food, water, and movie truck to the site. You could tell on the faces of the people residing there that the help was welcome and a relief to them. During that time I was able to converse with a couple of the men and one woman from the village. They were able to convey some of the hardship the people of that particular village faced, the basic needs that people struggled to have met, the lack of government involvement, and things that they wished they could see happen to help their people.
There was, though, a special resilience that those people showed. Despite having lost so much, they still managed to find joy. They had their families and their friends. Though their homes were reduced to ashes, their possessions lost to flame and smoke, they still held on to a hope and a faith. There was a worship song that the team brought with them from village to village.
It was called "Tomalo." translated, "Take it All."
They sang it at the top of their lungs...and it moved many of us to tears.
The Dominican Republic has always had a tense relationship with its neighboring country Haiti. The governments of both countries are corrupt, unhelpful at best. For the people, there isn't much that they can look to the government for. After the earthquakes in Haiti, many Haitian refugees came to the Dominican Republic in hopes of starting over. Many of those refugees end up being deported back to their own country only to be rejected by their government, leaving them to wander in a limbo zone.
With nowhere else to go, some take refuge in places like this garbage dump. The refugees are allowed to stay in the dump as long as they help provide recycling labor. They live day after day in material and human waste, trying to salvage a living off of what gets dumped by the trucks. The only clean water and form of bathing they receive is when it rains.
It was these realities that made me realize just what I had...and how much I was obligated to give back.
I can't remember when it hit me exactly, but I finally knew what story I wanted to tell.
Each one of the children, the parents, men and women, and the elders held something special. A sort of quiet strength...
Every soul is precious. Each person continued to live and fight.
They were the embers in the ashes, the burning coals that refused to go out.
Returning home wasn't easy. Needless to say, I'll never be the same after seeing what I saw so closely. I came back with a sobriety of spirit that I didn't think I had ever experienced before. The way I saw my own country, the things that are prioritized, fought over, debated, all seemed trivial and superficial. It's as if I had been living in a glass bottle, viewing the world in a twisted, misty, idealistic filter that obscured the more harsh and unjust world behind it. For a few days I wasn't sure I knew what to do with myself...except continue to shoot.
I was inspired. Using my camera in this capacity was the most fulfilling mission I'd ever taken on. In a wide world full of stories and souls, I want to continue spreading the knowledge of the things happenings behind and within our borders and promote causes that seek to genuinely help our world communities.
My hope is to return to my newly found friends in the D.R., to continue doing life with them. Every journey leads to another. Who knows where I'll end up next?
If you want to know more about the ministry I went with that helps the people of the Dominican Republic, or would like to donate, visit cupsofcoldwater.com.