Ten months after one of the most powerful storms of the century hit the Caribbean islands, I’m on a flight to one of them. I’m headed to St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and it’s jammed full. I look around to see a plane packed with tourist attire, wide-brimmed sun hats and neon-colored cover-ups. These are people happily going on a vacation. Maybe that’s a good sign?
At this point, I don’t know what to expect. The last time I went to a place post-natural disaster was New York City, just a few days after Hurricane Sandy. I volunteered to cook for relief workers in the Rockaways. That situation was so much more precarious than anyone could imagine. I ended up getting stuck there. It wasn’t ideal, but those were days I will never forget — days where I was shaken awake. An era of my life when I became more aware of my own humanity, and everyone else’s. It didn’t matter that my trip was longer than expected or that I had to put other things in my life on hold because of it. Sometimes you just need to stop whatever it is you are doing and put other people first.
As I land in St Thomas, I look out my window. The islands look like perfect green dots on a turquoise canvas. We get closer and I see the beaches have been cleared from debris, leaves are growing back on trees and houses have roofs; some temporary, others brand new. It’s a place in the midst of healing and it’s beautiful.
I’m in the USVI with Adobe, to participate in a photography workshop for young kids on the island. After we deplane, I meet some of the others I’ll be sharing this experience with. Some are professional photographers from Germany, England, and the US, some are writers, and others are the cultural tastemakers leading the teams at Adobe and Lightroom. This is a trip about the island and its recovery, but it’s also a trip about art. It’s about using creativity as a tool for change. I’m here to witness, and write about it — using words like pixels to create images.
On the surface, this may seem like a roundabout way to help the people in St. Thomas. A youth photography workshop with expert visual story-tellers doesn’t exactly save lives. But I’ve always believed in the power of storytelling. Years of travel have left me convinced that kids who know how to tell their stories are more likely to become leaders in their communities — mobilizing, engaging, and standing up for their ideals. For me, helping kids develop an artistic craft and voice feels like the perfect way to help the community thrive.
On my first morning on the island, our little group gets to work right away. Things kick off with the lead teachers helping us to understand more about photography as a tool for social change in disaster zones — a concept that’s new to me. They explain that photographing these areas can be a delicate subject.
“One of the biggest challenges in travel photography is the dehumanizing nature of it — where people travel all around the world to different locations and treat people as photo opportunities rather than human beings,” photographer Colby Brown tells us. “Often when I visit a new location, I’ll keep my camera in my backpack and walk around having conversations with people to try and get to know them before I ask if I can take their picture. Taking time to understand your subjects a little more can go a long way.”
This approach is Brown’s simple key to getting to know the people you’re working with. It allows them to feel like they are part of the story, not only as a subject, but as storytellers themselves. On this trip, we ask permission when taking portraits, and also, use the opportunity to ask people what parts of their lives (or bodies) they want in the pictures.
About 10 very excited kids participate in the photography workshop led by Brown and fellow photographers, Andy To, Erin Sullivan, and Paola Franqui. They’re split into groups and are taught the basics of photo editing as well as how to identify subjects and how to talk about their creative processes.
This seems an important lesson as well. I’m an outsider documenting the story. But this workshop, gives locals the tools and skills to tell their own experience and stories. And I truly believe empowering people to use their innovative thinking and creativity is needed more than ever.
Since the storms of 2017, the U.S. Virgin Islands have received more than $1 billion in federal funding toward relief for things things like debris removal, power restoration, and emergency protective measures. But thinking about these kids, and the joy they find in learning to photograph the world around them, I can’t help but feel that more funds should also go to education, community building, storytelling, and photography.
As we travel the islands — teaching workshops in the mornings and hitting the beaches or exploring in the afternoons — I get the impression St Johns, St Croix, and St Thomas will all make a strong come back. It may take a few years but residents are very optimistic about the rebuilding process and genuinely look forward to making their island more prepared for future disasters by implementing a more modernized infrastructure. Though there’s clearly damage, everyone I encounter is in great spirits, and I feel a strong sense of community on the island. A community that embraces me as well. And being there, participating with this talented group of artists giving back to emerging artists, I find this trip doesn’t just help the people of the Virgin Islands, but all of us. It’s tourism supporting locals and vice versa.
By the time I have to leave, I’ve fully resigned from the idea that we are limited to our borders. We’re one community and what the hell are we doing on this planet if not enhancing the human experience for everyone?
Sometimes, you can connect to people and help by handing out water filters, but this visit reminded me of all the other ways you can help others while traveling. I have always wished to find purposeful ways to give back during my travels in the form of presence, skill sharing, and through genuine connection with my hosts. These few days, in St. Thomas, I was able to connect through shared creativity, and maybe, that’s the key to a brighter world and future, even when disaster strikes.