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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Giving Back

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

To the very lucky, who love what they do and who cannot imagine doing anything else, there sometimes comes a time of accounting. Not in terms of debt or retribution, but of reconciliation.

Reconciling the knowledge that life has given one a tremendous gift that may require a return. Figuring that some heavenly calculus wants a righting of the scales; that it would be, at the least, a simple, cosmic courtesy occasionally to give back as much as one has been given.

To some this can be as simple – and frankly, as bloodless – as writing a check to a charity or donating cast-off clothing. The more substantive measure is giving of oneself: volunteering at a shelter, teaching a class to the less fortunate, taking part in a community house renovation, offering care or companionship to the elderly. These activities and so many other things are their own reward.

For Washington photographer Cameron Davidson, "payback" took the form of a personal photographic journal in the small Haitian village of Pignon, where he and other members of his Northern Virginia church tried in their small yet significant way to change things for the better.

The name of Cameron Davidson usually is linked to aerial photography and to commercial jobs for big-ticket corporate and editorial clients. An award-winning photographer, Davidson, 46, also has produced several beautiful books of his aerial and other work, among them Over Florida and A Moment of Silence: Arlington National Cemetery.

Flying perhaps comes naturally to Davidson, a licensed pilot. His mother (one of his biggest fans) was one of the first female helicopter traffic reporters – though when he's shooting aerials Davidson usually does so from a helicopter piloted by someone else. Davidson's Haitian adventure, however, was strictly on the ground.

"The idea was to see if the Fairlington Presbyterian Church would be interested in sponsoring kids in Haiti for school and to see if the church would be interested in joining the mission group [there]." The ongoing mission project, Davidson said, is run by two large churches in Vienna, Va.: First Baptist, with a predominantly African-American congregation, and Vienna Presbyterian, a much larger congregation with a healthy cohort of medical professionals who have volunteered their time and talents in regular missions to the impoverished Caribbean nation.

Davidson has traveled to Haiti on his own dime, over the past several years, and has come back with a set of images that reflect, not only the poverty of the region, but its beauty as well. He probably would not object if I said that some of the black and white work evokes W. Eugene Smith's classic documentary photography in Life magazine decades ago.

"My minister asked me to go check it out for my church, which I did," Davidson told me. "I love to travel and I wanted to check out Haiti – spooky place, incredible people, amazing light [and] hardship that is pretty tough.... I've traveled around the world for clients and I get wanderlust and 'wonder lust' – I just need to get out of here and go see the world."

With the Haiti project, Davidson said, "I'm trying to record the reality of the people and village of Pignon. The doctors and nurses along with the other folks from Northern Virginia have a good solid history with helping this little village. I'm trying to record the interaction between the Haitians and North Americans."

To do this, he traveled with minimal equipment and shot almost everything by available light.

"I really enjoy shooting portraits. I love shooting on the street capturing moments," Davidson noted, though he added that he still needs to get airborne at regular intervals, lest he wind up feeling restless and, as he puts it, "out of the loop."

"I love the photography of David Alan Harvey, Sebastiao Selgado, James Nachtwey, Alex Webb, Bruce Davidson and Henri Cartier-Bresson – who doesn't?" he said. "However there is an influence from Harvey and Davidson."

His preference in Haiti was for rangefinder cameras, including the 35mm Contax G1 and G2. He shot mostly with 28mm and 21mm lenses on the Contaxes and with a less wide 35mm Summicron on his Lecia M4.

Davidson was delighted with the performance of his main color film, Kodak's wonderful 100VS. (It may be my own favorite slide film as well.) In addition, for his bxw work, he mostly used Kodak Tri-X, with the occasional roll of Fuji Neopan 1600 and Ilford Delta 3200.

Did he ever use flash? "A few frames were shot with the Contax TTL flash," he reported. But he hated the results – the harsh, overpowering light destroyed the mood he was trying to capture.

During a slide show and lecture at Black and White Lab in Arlington, Va., Davidson also showed a brief video that he made as something of a lark while in Haiti. Granted, the image quality was nothing like that of his still cameras. Still, the brief film was compelling, and reflected Davidson's innate talent as an image-maker.

In a world in which hardship and squalor abound, one easily can feel overwhelmed to the point of saying why bother. But Davidson's view of his personal project is both candid and refreshing.

"It was self-assigned – showing how well the people of Pignon work together with the folks from Northern Virginia. The churches have used the images, and it is helping get the word out about this little project and the hospital."

A little project, perhaps. To all but the grateful people of one impoverished village in Haiti.

To learn more about the Pignon Project, go to www.pignon.org.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

©Cameron Davidson
Cameron Davidson's moody b&w photograph of volunteer staff at the medical center in Pignon calls to mind Gene Smith's work in Life magazine.

©Cameron Davidson
Color work in Davidson's essay includes photo of Haitian beggar, and a wonderful abstract of schoolgirls running along a road.

©Cameron Davidson

©Cameron Davidson
Child carrying a chair is not uncommon in the poor village of Pignon. Davidson notes that when people visit friends in Haiti, they often bring their own chairs.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Overcoming 'Animal'

Donald Woods Remembered

Traveling the Alternative Road

Venice Through a Polaroid Iris

Forbidden Pictures

Pecking Order

AMERICAN RUINS lecture with Maxwell MacKenzie and Henry AllenTuesday, September 18, 2001.

Maxwell MacKenzie, arguably the finest interior and architectural photographer in the area, also is an eloquent interpreter of American's disappearing rural landscape. His first book, Abandonings, was a masterpiece in color. His latest book, American Ruins: Ghosts on the Landscape, is a masterpiece in black and white, a collection of simply beautiful panorama images of the barns, schoolhouses and farmhouses on the western prairie that soon will crumble and fall.

Max will deliver a slide-show and lecture about this project, Tuesday, September 18 at 6:45pm at the Octagon House, 1735 New York Avenue NW. He will be joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post writer Henry Allen, who wrote the foreword to the book. Both will be available to sign copies of the book at a reception following the lecture.

The lecture is sponsored by the American Institute of Architects. The event is open to the public. Fee: $15 non-members; $10 members.

Reservations for what is certain to be a fascinating evening are suggested. Call 202-626-7387 or e-mail octagonprograms@aia.org