UPPER WEST SIDE — Many of the images of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake focus on the devastation — but a new exhibit at the gallery 25CPW looks at the lives of Haitian children through a different lens.
The exhibit, "Haitian Heroes," open only through Sunday at Central Park West and West 63rd Street, showcases the happiness and "zest for life," of a dozen Haitian children, said one of its organizers, Dominik Prinz.
"They don't deserve pity; they deserve our respect," said Prinz, who, on an impulse after watching a documentary about Haiti in 2011, jumped on a plane and went down to see the country himself. He said he was shocked by the film's portrayal of how little rebuilding had happened.
On his first short visit, he visited a K-12 school and orphanage for 300 children in the capital Port-au-Prince. "Maison de les Enfants du Village du Avenir," which translates to "House of the Children in the Village of the Future," but which goes simply by MEMA is run by Natacha Marseille, 30, herself once an orphan.
Prinz met children whose positivity amazed him, he said.
"I wanted to find a way for people to have the same experience of how strong these kids are," said Prinz.
To share his on the ground experience with others, Prinz, who works in consulting by day, enlisted friend and photographer Robert Felgentreu to join him on a trip back to Haiti to profile some of the children.
"They have so much energy and no one knows," said Felgentreu.
"We'd been thinking about collecting success stories, not showing misery all the time — showing what's possible."
The lack of infrastructure in the capital means there's no escaping the wreckage, they said, and their arrival was tough, they recalled.
They stayed for a week, but Prinz said it felt like 200 days.
The men wanted to capture the contrast between the students' spirit and their surroundings, so they photographed them not in uniform at school, but in their homes.
"You go through the mess and then there's this hole that's his home and you see this beautiful boy and the contrast is painful," Felgentreu said, describing their first subject, a 6-year-old boy named McKinely.
McKinley's home was so dark, with no electricity and no windows, that Felgentreu brought him up to the roof to photograph him and gave him a Haitian flag.
"He was so playful," said Felgentreu, who recounted how McKinley draped the flag around him like a hero's cape, which lead to the exhibit's iconic image.
Over the course of the week, the two met a boy who survived after being buried for three days under rubble, the girl who is the best student at MEMA and a boy whose greatest wish is to come to New York City and meet hip hop artists.
"The question of 'what do you wish for yourself?' —there were minutes of silence again and again," said Felgentreu, who said there is a real gap between what the children hope to achieve and what their parents see as realistic.
Every student they met wanted to help rebuild Haiti in some way, mostly through medical or engineering training, said Prinz.
But the few universities in the country are extremely competitive and cost $3,000 a year — when most Haitians make only $60 a month.
The exhibit, which is also part of a fundraising effort for MEMA, opened Thursday night with a crowd of more than 150 filling the gallery.
"A lot of people are asking about how we can get [the kids] into university," said Prinz.
The NGO Red Line Children Charity has purchased land for Marseille to expand her operation outside of Port-au-Prince, which would be more accessible to children of farmers, but she would need around $250,000 to create a new orphanage and school, Prinz estimated.
"The goal is to change that perception [of poor, sad kids]," said Prinz. "If you see someone as a victim, you will never see them as a solution."
For more information or to donate to the project, which hopes to exhibit on the West Coast and in Europe, go to HaitianHeroes.org