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Through Her Lens: Exploring Haiti’s Craft Scene with Alison Wright

Left photo credit: Alison Wright

Award-winning National Geographic contributing photographer, Alison Wright, has just returned from Haiti. And fortunately for us, her experience has not gone undocumented. This week, in addition to gearing up for our week-long August takeover of Alison’s stunning photographs on Nest’s Instagram, we are speaking with her on the Nest Journal about the intersection of craft and culture, as she experienced it on her recent trip.

Nest: What was your first encounter with Haiti? How did your most recent trip to the country compare? How have things changed or remained the same?

I spent about a month there after the earthquake, documenting the chaos and devastation that rocked the country and killed about 300,000 people. A family was kind enough to let me sleep in their yard and never once did they ask when I was leaving. Shortly after I had returned to the States, I was sent back to Haiti to shoot a Smithsonian Magazine feature story on all of the beautiful Haitian art that had been destroyed. The experience provided an enlightening education in the artistic beauty of the culture while also overwhelming me with its sadness.

This past trip for Nest was my first time back to Haiti since the Smithsonian project. It was disheartening to see much of Port-au-Prince still steeped in rubble. I commiserated with the anger and frustration Haiti’s people are feeling in response to the lack of infrastructure that has reached them. While Americans gave to the bone to help, political corruption continues to run rampant in the country, unfortunately. The cholera epidemics and hurricanes aren’t helping: Haiti keeps getting slammed.

Nest: What types of craftsmanship did you see taking place in Haiti? Which type of technique made the greatest impression on you and why?

The craft I saw ranged from factory-type production with a strong focus on ensuring fair wages to women, to an enterprise through which women made their own jewelry from horn and leather tanning. In all cases, I was impressed by the innovation and dedication that these women brought to their work. You could directly witness the empowerment through financial freedom and personal creativity these women were experiencing.

Nest: What struck you about the women you met? How were their personal stories reflected in their craftwork?

Magalie, who founded Caribbean Craft, had so much energy and enthusiasm that I could barely convince her to sit still for a photo. A sweet older women who worked at the factory making paper mache products let me know that this job is affording her some financial freedom from her husband: after he knocked out her front teeth, she took her craft earnings to buy new ones.

Nest: As part of your work with Nest, you assisted some of the women you met in utilizing a digital camera to improve their marketing and product photography – you even left a couple of cameras behind for the women. Can you tell us more about what it was like to share your craft of photography with the artisan women you met?

I love sharing my photographic knowledge with other women. These women were so excited to learn something new, and to see the world in a different way. I had a blast using the cameras with the folks at At Haiti Design Company, where Christelle Paul is fulfilling her dream making jewelry from cow horn. She left her last job and opened a workshop in the most dangerous part of downtown Port-au-Prince – the workshop still doesn’t have a roof! I told her that she’s a true badass. Christelle was so excited to learn how to use a camera to take better photos to sell her jewelry on line, so I left the camera with her to continue using.

Nest: As a photographer, what is the lasting image of Haiti that is most impressed upon your mind’s eye? 

The generosity of the people and their enduring spirit are what stays with me. When you see how much these people have overcome, you can’t help but be awed by their tenacity, resiliency, and ceaseless creativity.

From New York to Java, This Gucci Marketing Maven Brought Her Skills to Indonesian Batik

When Cecilia (Ceci) Wang, a media planner at Gucci, came upon the opportunity to volunteer with a fledgling Indonesia-based artisan enterprise uniting shibori and batik textile design techniques, she didn’t waste a moment’s time in filling out the online forms offered through her employer.

Ceci’s task was to work alongside Putri Komar, a young entrepreneur from a family with more than five generations of traditional batik production to its name, in launching her new fashion brand combining both the shibori tie dye and batik wax resistant dye craft techniques. Together, Ceci and Putri collaborated on new strategies to improve brand storytelling, marketing materials, and digital communications – and identified ways for Shibotik to build its marketing strategy into the context of a larger business plan.

Ceci guided Putri in building a more thoughtful framework around her brand positioning, and also focused on bolstering her sometimes wavering confidence. Says Ceci: “Putri had great ideas to further her brand; however she needed some encouragement and reassurance that she was on the right path in interpreting global trends to appeal to both a domestic and international customer.”

For Ceci, the close to two weeks spent in Indonesia came with certain cultural awakenings, like how a different structuring of time can create discrepancies between global artisans and the brands they seek to work with. But the slower pace in Indonesia brought lessons for Ceci. She reflects: “My experience made me appreciate the time and effort these artisans spent crafting a product, and the valuable resources that we often take for granted.”

Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, west elm, and Nest Talk Social Change at the Intersection of Craft and Commerce

The current MoMA retrospective entitled Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends presents a window into the world of a vibrant artist and man who MoMA cites as exemplifying an “openness to the world, commitment to dialogue and collaboration, and global curiosity.” It is perhaps these traits that make the current Rauschenberg + west elm collaboration so more than the fabulously funky new furniture collection that it is.

“The collaboration is about making you stop and think about the relationship between art and objects, as well as the stories behind how objects are made,” reflects Jennifer Gootman, West Elm’s VP of Social Responsibility and Innovation. And undoubtedly, if a chair is a piece of art, we are prompted to reconsider the possibility of filling our daily lives with objects of purpose – those forged with stories and artistic expression – so that even mundane rituals would take on meaning. It is at this intersection of artistic form and functionality that artisan craft has served as a cornerstone of creative expression, cultural identity, and commerce for centuries.

The overlapping spheres of influence that bridge the non-profit and for-profit realms proved a powerful point of discussion for Nest’s Rebecca van Bergen, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s Director of Philanthropy, Rise Wilson, and Jennifer Gootman, who during a recent intimate talk hosted by Nest’s own Advisory Board member, Phoebe Campbell, covered everything from craft as a vehicle for social change to the need to philanthropically fund the arts as well as science.

Rise wisely warned us against false binaries, citing an unnecessary bifurcation between worlds whose common social goals can instead be worked towards in harmony. Nest’s Rebecca van Bergen noted the important ways that philanthropy and corporate responsibility have combined to help Nest’s non-profit work for artisans reach new levels of impact.

A thank you goes out to Rauschenberg Foundation, west elm, and Phoebe Campbell for surfacing a bold and beautiful conversation that left us all wanting more!