What is your occupation and academic background and how did you come to work in this field?
I am a photographer who started out studying architecture at Bennington College but fell in love with photography and its ability to tell stories. I studied with a very special teacher, photographer and brilliant writer who taught me that stories are everywhere. So while I wanted to travel far and wide, he taught me that stories were right beneath me and all around me, and even in the tiny hamlet of a somewhat impoverished town in the southwest corner of the state of Vermont. Twenty years later I find myself in Haiti, in a dust-strewn part of Port-au-Prince, post earthquake, teaching adolescent girls how to take photographs and how to tell the stories that are all around them.
What is the biggest challenge of your work?
The biggest challenge of my own photographic work is finding assignments. Finding organizations that value the skill of storytelling through photographs is not an easy task in today’s digital world. Today everyone is a photographer with a Smartphone, and the value of the image has been lost because it’s everywhere, on every social media outlet. We are saturated with images and we all possess devices capable of taking “pretty decent shots.” However, the real ability to tell a story through images is an acquired skill, honed over time, only through the taking of images that together form visual stories. My other great challenge is finding supporters for the Center for the Arts, to keep it financially afloat. We are all saturated with requests from various organizations, all trying to do good things in the world and help those less fortunate than ourselves. So it’s challenging to convince folks to support my organization over all the others that are doing good work as well.
Identify one or two of your proudest achievements?
One of the proudest achievements I have had is witnessing the absolute blossoming of one of the girls in my program, an extraordinary 18-year-old Haitian girl named Wevly, with whom I have been working for the past three and a half years. Earlier this year I bought her to New York for our book launch and I watched her speak before 300 privileged students her age at one of the most prestigious high schools in the NYC area. As I listened to her speak about what it is like to be a girl in Haiti today, I felt the deepest sense of pride, unlike anything I have felt before, for all that Wevly has become and developed into, over the course of the past few years working at the Center for the Arts. For Wevly, who received a standing ovation for her speech, it was a moment in her life that I believe she will never forget. After three years of learning to express herself, it was a pivotal point in which I think she realized the power of her voice.
What leaders, thinkers or doers do you admire most?
One of the people I most admire is our late Program Coordinator, Ysmaille Jean Baptiste, who was tragically shot and killed earlier this year in Port-au-Prince. He and I founded The Center for the Arts together in the community of Siloe, where he moved after the earthquake. He was an extraordinary person, a rare ray of shining light in Haiti; a presence of positivity and joy emanated from him and he had a deep desire to create and advance life, not just for his family but for others. He taught me what it meant to lead quietly and steadily, and what it means to lead a community of people.
What would be your advice to young people who want their careers and lives to have impact?
My advice to young people who want their careers and lives to have impact is to dive in. Regardless. While you may share your ideas with others, listen only to yourself and believe deeply that anything is possible and you can do anything you set your mind to.
Did you have a mentor or do you mentor someone else? How has that experience changed you?
Mentors are vitally important to one’s journey in life. I don’t feel that I had mentors as I was growing up and perhaps because of that, I feel the importance of giving to others, and in particular to the girls in Haiti, whose lives are challenging beyond ways we are capable of really understanding. —Nadia Todres, Photographer and Founder, Center for the Arts, Port-au-Prince