23°, Far From Paradise - Essay for Food For The Poor, Inc. - PhMuseum

23°, Far From Paradise - Essay for Food For The Poor, Inc.

Benjamin Rusnak

2007 - 2013

23° of latitude separate the Equator from the Northern tropic. These latitudes are home to beaches, palms, vacation resorts, idyllic paradise -- and poverty.

This is where the sun bares countless dark and desperate lives. This is where the unfortunate location of birth often condemns people to a life of struggle in an unforgiving land, beset with drought and flood, famine and tempest.

Conversely, this is where hope and resilience coexist with tribulation. For the poor, there is a duality to life. In each person, each moment holds joy and pain, a mourning for what is lost and a yearning for what may be. These lands represent a dream holiday to tourists, but they are only an elusive fantasy to millions of residents still hoping for the reality of paradise to become theirs.

I have documented the lives of the poor in the Caribbean and Latin America for a decade. The people I meet struggle, strive, hope, dream, live and die in those 23°. While this region is only one part of the globe, the lives of turmoil and legacies of hope within it are emblematic of people around the world who suffer at the same latitudes. Their lives are separated by a chasm of degrees, in contrast to those living in developed nations to the north and south.

This work seeks to illuminate this intersection of geographic lines with circumstance of birth and how the irony of being poor in paradise creates strength, resilience and a duality of spirit. I believe the broad view of the panoramic format, combined with an often intimate perspective, creates a novel way to explore the relationship between the land and those who must scrape together an existence from it.

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  • In the weeks after the quake, Haitians turn - as they always do - to prayer and faith as the catalyst for their healing.

  • With at least 50,000 earthquake victims living on what was once a golf course at a private country club, Delmas 40B is one of the largest tent cities in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

  • The shadows of poverty - represented here by a clothes line and barren trees - entwine with the sunbaked earth at a family's shack in Honduras.

  • A team of men and women march along a ridge on their way to plant some of the 25,000 trees donated by Food For The Poor in Mahotière, Haiti on May 1, 2010.
    May 1st is Haiti's Labor Day. To celebrate, on Saturday May 1, 2010, Food For The Poor donated more than 25,000 trees to be planted in Mahotière, Haiti, a farm community in the mountains high above Port-au-Prince, where deforestation, soil erosion and hunger are prevalent. About 1,500 local people participated in a highly organized planting of the trees on the steep slopes surrounding a Food For The Poor village.

  • Beleaguered and aimless, earthquake survivors wander through a tent camp in Port-au-Prince a week after the earthquake.

  • A baby cries after his daily bath in a river along the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

  • The bodies of a mother and child are brought by wheelbarrow for burial at a cemetery in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti after the earthquake.

  • Many earthquake victims fled Port-au-Prince for Haiti's second-largest and already overcrowded city, Cap Haitien. With good land at a premium, many displaced families live along the garbage-strewn shore of a river in Cap Haitien, which also doubles as a bathroom. Yet, a mother's hope for a better future for her children is unflagging. This family later moved into a new concrete block home in a community of 200 houses built by Food For The Poor. Half the families were earthquake victims.

  • Parched villagers outside San Pedro Sula, Honduras, use an ingenious system to gather water from a narrow well. Access to clean drinking water is a daily struggle for more than 800 million people worldwide.

  • Looking for a cheap thrill and an escape from a hot afternoon, children jump off a highway bridge that crosses over their flood-prone slum in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

  • Haitian resilience and the desperate reality of poverty coexist within feet of each other at a food distribution point in Leogane.

  • For thousands, the same river near Jacmel, Haiti that washes away their crops during a storm, provides them with the only place to wash clothes and bathe.

  • With simple tools and a strong resolve Haitians move forward a year after the devastating earthquake. Their resilience produces a harvest of survival in an unforgiving landscape.

  • Children play and bathe in a river near Georgetown, Guyana. In a country where 90 percent of the population lives within several miles of the coast, much of life revolves around water. Children, whether rich or poor, find comfort and joy in water.

  • A silted river snakes through the Haitian landscape, another victim of the rampant deforestation, which threatens the environment and its people.

  • Workers in a garbage dump in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala wait to hear about a planned vocational training center that would teach them to do something other than earn a living by sifting through refuse for food and recyclables.

  • This tidal swamp is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of poor Haitians who relocate from the countryside to the northern city of Cap Haitien, in search of a better life. In the country’s second-largest city, land is as scarce as food for the new arrivals. So the city's garbage is mixed with earth to create tiny islands, where a shack is precariously perched.

  • A billboard advertising baby products stands in stark contrast to what was once a middle class neighborhood of Port-auPrince.

  • Children play on the single bed that an entire family must share in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

  • A kite made of sticks and a plastic bag flies over a Cap Haitien, Haiti slum with the innocence and hope of the boy who made it from matierials he found in the garbage.

  • On the first anniversary of the devastating Haiti earthquake, women pray at the ruined Port-au-Prince cathedral for their loved ones who perished in the disaster as well as for those who were spared.

  • Lying below the irony of a Superman movie poster, a young girl with a heart problem can barely sit up, struggling to survive in her family's shack near Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. The family can’t afford treatment for her heart condition.

  • During a rare break from work and worries, a young girl in Georgetown, Guyana swings dreamily in a hammock on the porch of her family's shack, where their most valuable possession is tied.

  • In a scene that mimics a bygone era in the developed world, a family farms in the Dominican Republic with hard labor and the sweat of their brows to eak out a meager existence from the rocky earth.

  • Despite the fetid swamp environment of a Cap Haitien slum, a child still finds moments of simply joy and laughter.

  • A trio of girls anxiously waits in line for food at a relief agency distribution near Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

  • Looters pick their way through unstable debris as they salvage anything they can find inside the ruins of the Roman Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

  • A long scar, evidence of the dangers of poverty, is left after a boy accidentally drank acid from a bottle he found in a garbage dump next to his house in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

  • A boy plays near an abandoned factory near Cap Haitien, Haiti. Decades of political instability have driven industry and foreign investment out of Haiti.

  • A Honduran hospital ward is full of children with opportunistic infections, often leading to respiratory problems, which is common among children with poor diets or chronic malnutrition.


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