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.