Capturing Life & Joy: Meet Allison Mayer
Tell us about yourself?
— That’s a pretty open ended question! I was born and raised an affluent suburb of Indianapolis, IN. I moved to Boston, MA to study Architecture in 2005. It was there that photography started to become more than just a hobby for me. I officially launched my business in 2009 after moving back to Indianapolis. I shot my first wedding in September of that year, and by 2011 I was voted Best Photographer in Indianapolis.
I loved being invited to share in the defining moments in people’s lives. The births of children, the weddings, the celebrations. But something felt off to me. It felt in authentic in a way. Every week I was attending 3-5 happy, amazing events. Out in the rest of the world there was so much pain and suffering. It didn’t balance out, and it began to feel shallow for me.
In 2012, I had the opportunity to go to Haiti for the first time. I’d did all the research I could before leaving on that trip, but from the moment my feet hit the ground, Haiti was a constant surprise. The Haiti you read about very much existed. You were confronted with un-imaginable poverty around every corner. Yet there was an unmistakable joy and spirit in the air. At that time, I had never considered a career in journalism. I was completely let down by every article I read prior to arriving in Haiti. I knew I could do a better job. I couldn’t pin point at that moment what was ‘off’ but I knew it could be better.
I started studying journalism shortly after returning from that trip. As I was paying attention to the media around me, I began to notice a trend to have the most shocking and graphic stories.
In 2012, my husband had filed for divorce. The legal battle began shortly after my return from Haiti. In December 2012 I found out my husband had offered someone $15,000 to have me killed (http://bit.ly/1ReBngt) . He was arrested on New Years, and it managed to slip under the media radar. Where I’m from, things like that don’t happen. There isn’t murder or violent crime. When his case came up on the docket for a bail reduction hearing, the media noticed.
My phone rang. My doorbell rang. I got emails. I got Facebook messages. I was hounded for a comment or an interview for two days. I never spoke to anyone. The news broke in the morning, and it was the top story on every channel that evening.That next morning, the paper arrived, and I had made the front page. As I read through the article I was shocked, flabergasted, disgusted to say the least. When I refused to answer the reporters questions…. he took it up on himself to fill in the blanks. If the article wasn’t salacious enough, the comments online made it into outright tabloid gossip.
I felt diminished, violated, prostituted so the paper could make a buck.
Then it clicked.
THIS is what was wrong. All those stories I read, and the articles I researched… they were undignified attempts to profit from the suffering of the Haitian people.
In my work my guiding principle is human dignity. The right of everyone to exist in this world in their complex entirety. Its something I speak about often (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wnx8LZ6Ye-g). My stories always leave room for the person to exist beyond the circumstances in which they find themselves. My stories never define a person’s existence.
This is why I work as a freelancer/entrepreneur. I value the ability to say NO. The ability to refuse to take an image that I feel is nothing more than “poor”nography (aka poverty porn). (http://allisonmayer.com/poornography/)
How can you not love this image?
Its pure joy. These kids had never seen a parachute before, something that’s a right of passage in Gym class here in the United States.
When I look at this image I can hear their laughter and their screams, the sounds of dozens of children without a care in the world.
No shoes, no shirt, (maybe even no dinner that day) no problem. They’re just kids, like we all were.
This image from my 2012 trip to Haiti started it all.
I was showing some images to a group of friends, when one of them stopped on this image,
held my ipad to her chest, and started crying.
“I wish I could just give her a hug” my friend said.
I realized I had the ability to impact people with my photography, to connect them to people they would never have known.
I’ll never forget how it made me feel to have that kind of an impact on someone.
More than anything I felt the weight of the responsibility that comes with my job.
These are people, and I must NEVER forget that.
It’s a privilege to share their stories, and I don’t take it lightly.
What about your job makes you slap your feet on the floor every morning with such enthusiasm?
–The people that I meet. They are all beautiful and unique. Every person teaches me something about life.
— This is like choosing between your children. Haiti will always be special to me. When I first went there I was broken and vulnerable. It allowed me to connect with people in a way that I can’t always replicate. My work keeps me right where brokenness meets grace. I have to distance myself from that sometimes to see a story objectively. Haiti is something of a “birthplace” for me, for who I am today.
In Haiti I met a woman who lost many people in the earthquake. Sadly this isn’t an uncommon story. Speaking through a translator, she was asked how she keeps going. In creole she responded, and it was translated. “I always know hope”. Did she say “I always know hope?” Or did the translator’s basic English confuse have and know? We will never know the answer to that question, but it’s become my motto. It sounds weird, and it made me pay attention. Always know hope. That’s what the tattoo on my wrist reads. When I say it I can see her hands folded, and her face turned to the sky as she said it. Those words are forever etched on my soul.
Is there a sterotype or a misconception about being a humanitarian photog you’d like to set straight (like how glamorous it is)?
— Its not glamorous.
For every day I’m shooting in an amazing location, I’m spending at least one night sleeping on a dirt floor, or with bugs, or wearing long-sleves in 100 degree weather so I don’t get bitten by mosquitos. Sometimes I’m in the hospital for 2 days with Dengue fever… and it takes nearly a month of sleeping 20hours a day to fully recover from the fatigue it causes. The majority of the time I’m sitting behind a computer editing and making phone calls.
I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Its emotionally taxing work. Its hard work, but if I won the lottery tomorrow, the only thing that would change is that I’d be able to afford do more.
This is Kenciana from a rural part of Haiti, just outside Port-Au-Prince.
In this photo she weighs just under 3lbs, severely malnourished.
There was a very good chance she wouldn’t make it,
but thanks to the malnutrition clinic at Nehemiah Vision Ministries she’s growing stronger every day.
For every Kenciana, there are plenty of stories where the outcome wasn’t a happy ending.
This girl truly is a miracle, and reminds me every day of the good that can be done through the organizations I work with.
What did no one tell you about being a woman that you wish they would have?
— That its ok to be one.
I’ve always been a “tom-boy”, with male-dominated interests. I wanted to be a fighter pilot with the Blue Angels until I was 8. Architecture is a male dominated industry. In another life, I’ll be a professional bull rider. I drive trucks and muscle cars. I change my own oil and do my own brakes.
I didn’t wear make-up, or pink, or dresses when I was younger. I didn’t think the two could co-exist. I am tough and proud. There’s was no room for anything girly that other’s might perceive as week and feminine. That’s not the case now, I fully embrace being a woman and being pretty bad ass. I wish I hadn’t rebelled against femininity so hard when I was younger.