Project Istwa is a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of self-empowerment, awareness and self-expression amongst Haitian youth through the use of photography and narrative. Founded by Linda D. Thélémaque and Fiona Korwin-Pawlowski in 2011, the project was inspired by their experiences working together on several medical missions in Haiti in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake. Ms. Thélémaque first discovered the concept of photovoice while obtaining her Masters of Public Health at Brooklyn College and thought that the implementation of this special method of participatory photography in Haiti was a necessary measure. The founders feel that due to the large youth population in Haiti and the potential positive role of youth in Haiti's future it is especially important to amplify what youth want to communicate on behalf of themselves and their communities. The roots of Project Istwa lie in the original photovoice approach that uses photography and narrative as both a tool of self-expression and advocacy within marginalized communities. Project Istwa also incorporates youth and community development components. Each workshop is tailored as specifically as possible to each individual group of participants in order to reflect community's context.
During each workshop, participants are given a digital camera so they can take pictures that show what a day in their life looks like from their perspective. Working with facilitators, participants learn about their cameras and photography and photograph their surroundings. The workshop week includes group work and individual work. Among other activities, after practicing a variety of shots participants go on a community walk with facilitators for further practice. Participants view and discuss each other's photographs. These sessions open up a dialogue within the group about what each individual is seeing and wanting to communicate through their photographs. In addition, all participants meet one-on-one with facilitators for a more in-depth conversation about the photographs they took and their significance. Each participant captions a particular group of his or her photographs through these individual sessions. At the end of the week they show their captioned photographs to family, friends and community members in a public exhibit in their neighborhood.
Throughout the week music, dance, icebreakers, drawing and writing exercises are employed as youth and community development tools. Every participant keeps their matted and captioned photographs put on display in the community exhibit as well as a photo album of photographs of them working throughout the week and photographs not included in the community exhibit. In addition to members of each community, local officials and leaders are also invited to each community exhibit so that the participants' perspectives can be communicated to political decision makers.
Project Istwa has completed six workshops in Cité Soleil, Hinche, Pétion-Ville, Jacmel, Miragoâne, Cap-Haitien, Fort Liberte, Gonaives, Port-de-Paix, Jeremie and Port-Salut.
Project Istwa plans to conduct workshops in each of the ten departments of Haiti, as well as the bateyes (impoverished areas where Haitian migrant workers reside) in the Dominican Republic, with the goal of giving Haitian youth all across the island an opportunity to express themselves in a new way.
There are several goals Project Istwa seeks to accomplish. First and foremost, the hope is that the participants simply have fun and that they find the workshop fulfilling. While that is the main priority, Project Istwa is also designed both as a community building activity and as an empowering exercise that will hopefully leave the children with a feeling that their perspectives and ideas matter.
To ensure that the scope and purpose of Project Istwa extends beyond each workshop, initiatives are in progress to maintain a long-term relationship between Project Istwa and Project Istwa alumni. One of these initiatives will focus on connecting the youth who participate in Project Istwa so that they can see how others their age live and view their lives in Haiti. By facilitating participant driven community development projects Project Istwa also seeks to maintain long-term relationships with alumni and their communities. For as many groups as is feasible Project Istwa will meet with participants after their completion of the workshop to hear from them what they want and need in their communities. Project Istwa will then facilitate the necessary fundraising and partnerships to implement these projects. This process has already begun with the first two groups of Project Istwa alumni.