Taken by Africa and moved forever
By: Nathan White
Published Tuesday November 27th, 2007
Appeared on page A2
MONCTON - Maurice Henri captures images for a living, but his heart has been captured by the suffering he's seen in Africa.
The 50-year-old Moncton photographer had never been to the continent until a two-week photo tour to South Africa two years ago, but he's already planning a third trip in January.
He was so taken on his first visit that he spent two extra weeks traveling and capturing images of a world entirely unlike his comfortable home.
He recalls seeing poverty and devastation, watching children die and feeling he had to do something. So Henri organized a group called Cameras for Healing and targeted Sierra Leone, which endured a decade of brutal civil war.
Joined by psychologist Charles Emmrys, a videographer and three photography students, Henri spent nearly a month in Sierra Leone last fall, using cameras to give people an outlet for their pain. He's made a five-year commitment to return to the country annually.
The stories he heard there keep him awake some nights and silenced the room Monday as he shared them with about 50 members and guests of the Moncton Rotary Club.
Young girls turned teenage mothers by rape. Children bullied and given drugs by warlords and forced to become soldiers. A talented soccer player - "the Sidney Crosby of Sierra Leone-" who had his leg chopped off with machete. A man who buried his face in his hands and cried every day after watching his wife and four daughters be raped and killed.
"Sierra Leone's civil war was one of the most brutal civil wars in the history of Western Africa," said Henri. Five years after the war officially ended, he described a country whose infrastructure is still in shambles, full of people whose emotions are as well.
The first Cameras for Healing trip brought former child soldiers and victims together, using a combination of psychology and photography to help them work through their issues.
"It was the first time actual ex-child soldiers and victims were together in the same room. It was pretty powerful and could have turned very violent on us real fast," said Henri.
Emmrys led a series of exercises, working through the awkwardness of bringing the groups together and helping them accept their situations.
"Then I take over and take some of what he did and use photography to get them to expand on it and open up visually. To get them to talk to us without saying, 'How do you feel?' To get them to use the camera, their eyes and their heart to express who they are."
Henri said the response was "totally amazing."
One girl did nothing but stare at the floor the first few days, said Henri, who learned she had an intense fear of men after being imprisoned in a windowless room for nine years and raped on an almost daily basis.
But she found an outlet behind the lens, and after two weeks, gave Henri a hug he'll never forget.
"She just said, 'Thank you,' in a quiet voice," he recalled. "The camera became their form of expression, without being criticized or ridiculed or anything like that."
For the return trip in January, Henri plans to bring a different group of people, including the information technology manager for School District 2, Geoff Douglas.
Douglas has been working with Henri to send older computers to countries in need. When computers are replaced at schools, they're often shipped to landfills despite being in good working order, he said.
"It didn't make sense to me when there must be somebody in the world that can use these machines," said Douglas, who has since overseen the shipment of 300 computers to Cameroon.
Douglas and Henri are working to bring a solar power expert on board to help develop energy sources for villages in Sierra. Douglas also plans to bring back outdated machines for recycling to avoid creating an environmental hazard.
That's the kind of follow-up needed to make a real difference in people's lives, said Henri.
"A lot of people like us will go to Africa for a week or two weeks, spread money around and then they never see us again. We are dealing with trauma, psychology and so on here. We can't just give them a camera and give them tools and get them to start to open up and then forget about them," said Henri.
"It's a process of healing and we can't do that in one trip."