By Naomi Shafer
Clowns Without Borders Funds Development Officer
On August 28th, 2011, Hurricane Irene hit my hometown. The photographers arrived before the National Guard. As we walked with our neighbors to explore the damage – houses, roads, orchards disappeared by the river – strangers made the town a tourist destination. As we collected scattered belongings and organized shelter, social media gaped at the unlikeliness of a Hurricane in Vermont.
Vermont’s improbable circumstances made us a news coverage novelty. A terrible situation was made worse by the media’s snide comments and insensitivities. People in cities that were spared by Hurricane Irene joked, “what hurricane?” while we waited for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. At best, we received pity. Five years later, the confusion of being portrayed as a joke and a victim still stings.
Why am I telling you about this experience? Because now, more than ever, it’s important to take stock of how to talk about and show people in crisis. During every project, Clowns Without Borders could take pictures of tragedy. We could show you hunger, poverty, violence, or sickness. But instead, we show you laughter, community, and resilience. We want our pictures to demonstrate the connection between people, not the difference in our circumstances.
In October of 2015, we had a team on the Greek island of Lesvos when four boats capsized in one night. That evening, the clowns — in their plain clothes — went to the northern harbor of Molyvos to help. Every survivor had lost someone that night. Sabine spent her night in the church-turned-emergency room, translating for the patients and doctors who were having the most difficult time communicating. Luz and Molly distributed dry clothes to the survivors. Clay stayed with two girls who couldn’t find their parents. We helped in the best way we could, and at 12:45 AM, the team left to get some sleep before their morning performance.
We didn’t share pictures of that night, in fact, we didn’t take pictures that night. We did take pictures at our shows the next day.
Our images from the morning after the wreck include a little boy, damp from the ocean, but laughing, as Clay Mazing twirls a lasso around him. Also, a young girl, who helped the clowns transform a life raft into a trampoline.
Each of these individuals has a harrowing story. Each has a hardship that lies ahead. However, the experiences we offer to you are the shared moments of hopefulness. We want to share moments of laughter and joy, so that instead of feeling pity, you can feel a connection.
We hope these pictures help you connect with our audiences, not through pity, but through solidarity.
Too often, we are only shown the destruction, and never shown the process of healing. Too often, we see the differences between people, instead of the delights we can share together. Too often, we assume that the subjects of our photos will never view them.
Choose to share the stories and struggles of others with the dignity that you would hope for, should you find yourself in a similar position. Just as I never expected to see the National Guard arrive in Williamsville, Vermont, many of our audience members never dreamed that they would be the ones on the news as survivors.