I met Christina Simons the day before the exhibition of her work on Haiti opened in Albury, Australia. I had seen some of her photos online and we talked about “the Haiti Project” at length. Nevertheless, despite my preparation, or maybe because of it, I was able to move further and deeper into the layers of the photographs. The first layer is impossible to avoid. The skinny children with distorted bellies, the houses in shambles, the unblinking stares of children and women looking right into the lens. As I took my time and took it all in, as much as I could anyway, I started looking for other things. A few smiles, girls singing and dancing, the light, the resilience, the hope. As I moved in closer again, I started to notice the paper these photographs were printed on, the way the metalic sheen captured and reflected the light, giving these images a depth that I thought had been lost with digital cameras. I saw the composition, the contrast between deep blues and rich oranges and yellow. Suddenly, I realised I was standing in front of Art, in the real sense. Unburdened by the weight of meaning, ideas or judgement. Christina’s mastery of her craft silently seduces and allows the viewer to see, truly see what can not be ignored.
ALOUD: Christina, can you start by describing how you became a photographer?
CHRISTINA SIMONS: I took a very indirect route. I was given a polaroid camera when I was 8 and I loved the feeling of capturing a moment, an image. As life progressed, I found myself doubting I could make a living out of photography. My misconceived ideas about it pushed me away from it. I decided to do a Visual Communication Design degree (in London) and got into Film and Television. I worked in London for 5 years in post-production and came to Australia to work on the Ned Kelly movie. At that point, I realised I couldn’t do it anymore. It took me a long time but I eventually went back to Photography. To move forward with it, I really felt I needed to understand how to run the business side of this career. I was concerned about how to make it a viable lifestyle. While I was at University for the second time, I started running my business, shooting for commercial clients as well as more personal projects which tended to revolve around human rights and civil liberties. When I graduated, I went off to Haiti and that is how the Haiti project started.
ALOUD: When did you become interested in the notion of “human rights and civil liberties” which is now at the centre of your work?
CHRISTINA: I went to South Africa when I was 20 and before that, I hadn’t really been exposed to anything that wasn’t “Western”. Being exposed to a culture which experiences human injustice so blatantly was quite unfamiliar and I was at an age when I could understand what I was seeing. It made me feel like I wanted to do something about it. I had a desire to make a difference if one could be made.
ALOUD: Could you talk about the Haiti Project?
CHRISTINA: I have always been interested in Haiti and I had come across the topic of child slavery long before thinking about doing anything about it. The concept baffled me and I felt that I should pursue it. In 2007, an opportunity came along to go there. I hooked up with a gentleman named Sergo, a “fixer” in the journalistic industry. I told him I wanted to learn about the “restavek” situation, which means “stay with” in Créole (a language derived from French) and refers to a child who is either given away or sold into a life of domestic servitude by their families who believe that they will be better looked after. Before the earthquake, children from the country were being sent into the city but now, since the earthquake, the trend has reversed. The initial idea is a belief that their child might have a better life but the common result is that the child is used as a domestic slave taking the burden of house chores away from the families’ children so these can be educated instead. The child is forced to cook, clean, wake up before everyone to “jete le pisse” (throw out the waste) and fetch water everyday from a water source which can be several kilometers away. They are often malnourished and abused physically or sexually on a daily basis. If they get injured, they are replaced or end up on the streets. Some kids are strong enough to run away and find that that is a preferred lifestyle. It was a very tough country in 2007, now it is even tougher as thousands of children were orphaned by the earthquake and are now at risk of becoming “restavek”.
ALOUD: How were you able to step into this world which only few Westerners would have access to?
CHRISTINA: Sergo was a big part of the process, I couldn’t have done it without him. He set up meetings for me from getting me into a prison to meetings with NGOs, and likewise, into the gangs. He introduced me to a gang member in the middle of “cité soleil”, one of the most notorious slums, and it is just because he is connected that he could make these sorts of contacts for me. People who have domestic slaves don’t like to be exposed so we were trying to be discreet or the children might have received beatings. We went to the places where the children would fetch water to talk to them. There were girls living on the street that I saw regularly to try and break down the barriers. I wanted to make them feel that I wasn’t looking down on them, in fact I wanted to try to connect with them that I was just trying to understand their stories.
ALOUD: The photos you are showing in Albury are just the visible part of the work you have been doing. Are you involved with NGOs there on a continuous basis?
CHRISTINA: “Save the Children” has been my closest link. All of my proceeds have gone back to the orphanages connected with the work I was doing there. Some of the proceeds have also gone to the Haiti earthquake funds through “Save the Children”. I tried to get out there after the earthquake but the NGOs were trying to limit the number of people going in, due to lack of resources. I was happy not to be a burden but I would like to return and try and find the people I connected with.
ALOUD: Is the reason you are showing your work again now to remind people that Haiti still needs help?
CHRISTINA: It is so easy for the media attention to move on to the next disaster. I can’t because I care about it. It’s not that I think everyone should care, even if I would like them to but Haiti really does still need a lot of help, and will for at least the next decade.
ALOUD: Are there other causes that are as close to your heart?
CHRISTINA: One of my more recent jobs was working with “Marie Stopes International”, a NGO that deals with women’s reproductive health in poverty stricken areas. I have recently gone to the Philippines and documented the work they were doing there.
ALOUD: Are the other aspects of your photography work used to fund your “passion” projects?
CHRISTINA: Yes. NGOs would rather direct their money towards the people they are helping rather than photographers and I support that. My commercial work can almost be seen as the polar opposite to the work I do for NGOs and sometimes it makes me uncomfortable but at the same time, if I can’t pay my mortgage, then I can’t do the work I care about, and in turn I can’t try to help bring attention to those in need. In any case, sometimes one needs a bit of distance from the intensity of the work in places like Haiti. Taking a step back can be important too.
ALOUD: What is at the core of the way you practice your photography?
CHRISTINA: What comes to mind is what I have called my business “Moksha”. At the beginning of his career, In “Brave new world”, Aldous Huxley talks about the decline of human civilization. In order to cope with stress or joy, people take a drug called “Soma” which numbs their emotions either way. At the end of his writing career, he travelled through the East, and studied eastern philosophy. The last book he wrote was called “Island” about a Utopia, merging western psychology and eastern philosophy. In this Utopia, people would take a drug called “Moksha” which peeled away our preconceived ideas about the world around us. This concept resonates with what I endeavor to do with my work which is to perceive the world without judgment. Showing what is real without overlaying judgment on it.
ALOUD: How do you make important decisions? What could make you say no to an offer?
CHRISTINA: I don’t shoot weddings (laughs). I say yes to jobs that I think will support my work, whether it is financially or folio wise. When it comes to documentary, I rarely say no. I really try to do what I can when the cause is good.
ALOUD: Is working for yourself an important aspect of what you do?
CHRISTINA: I love being by myself, I love working in solitude. Apparently, it is a strange thing but I really do like my own company. I like working with people but I also like not to worry about managing politics. I just like to do my job and focus. It might not be conventional but it is the way that feels right to me. Sometimes it is isolating but I don’t ever feel isolated.
ALOUD: What do you think of this quote “Choose a job you love and you will never work another day in your life” ?
CHRISTINA: I really like the idea but there is a practical side to doing what you love. Shooting is the stuff I love and it isn’t work. I call it work but I would choose doing that over anything else. The business side is probably the toughest part of my work, and I can honestly say I don’t love that part.
ALOUD: How long have you had an agent?
CHRISTINA: About 6 months. It’s fairly new but I have never been so productive. I wanted to approach my work unconventionally – get represented in both my documentary work as well as my commercial work – and I didn’t feel that an agent in Sydney would support both. I got the impression that it was a matter of choosing one or the other which I wasn’t happy with, so I decided to employ someone who would support me in both arenas. I hired someone I know who can put the time into it. It has made all the difference.
ALOUD: How do you promote yourself? Has that become your agent’s job?
CHRISTINA: Yes, that is her job. I didn’t do it before, I found it really difficult to sell myself. It just feels really disingenuous to who I am so getting Kate to do it is the best thing for me.
ALOUD: Of your current situation, what would you change?
CHRISTINA: I just want more documentary work. It’s what I would be doing if I wasn’t doing anything else. So I simply want more of it.
ALOUD: In conclusion, are the risks of freelancing the way you do worth the rewards?
CHRISTINA: I can’t imagine doing anything else. When I think about Haiti, I really want to continue to push it out into the world and make people conscious of it because Australia is very sheltered from it. Because it is not in the news as often anymore, people have forgotten about it and the country is still desperate for help. My work is to say that things can be done. People can actually make a big difference even with a small gesture. This is why I am doing what I am doing.
To learn more about Christina’s work, visit www.christinasimons.com. To find out more about The Haiti Project and learn how you could help, visit www.christinasimons.com/thehaitiproject/. The Haiti Project Exhibition will be showing at Albury’s Library Museum until the 17th of April 2011. All proceeds go to the causes Christina supports in Haiti. Christina is also a regular contributor to The Big Issue Australia, an organization developing strategies to address homelessness.
“like” the Aloud. Facebook page to see more links to previous profiles and additional links to websites, films, Art and more. You can also subscribe to this blog and receive regular updates directly to your email.