Published: Sunday, August 15, 2010 at 12:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 13, 2010 at 2:32 p.m.
Lakeland resident Cindy Skop has been a photographer for New York Times Co. publications, including The Ledger, for more than 10 years, and has photographed a wide variety of subjects during her career.
But the photo assignment that stands out the most in her mind was the experience of accompanying Ledger religion editor Cary McMullen to Haiti in February, where the two shadowed Auburndale businessman and philanthropist Mike Wnek on his effort to deliver aid to the earthquake-devastated country. It was on that trip that Skop documented a level of human desperation and need that she never saw before.
"While we were in Haiti, we followed Mike around while he was giving out supplies, mostly food - rice, juice, boxed milk," Skop, 41, recalls. "This was only three weeks after the earthquake and so many people were displaced. What I saw were people who were hungry. The commerce had basically stopped. Everything had come to a halt and no businesses were open. Those that were had only a few items and not enough for the people. What we were seeing were people pushing each other out of the way to get a cup of rice or a small 12-ounce bottle of juice. Basically that's what my images are - a lot of desperation and hungry faces."
Skop will showcase a collection of photographs from her experience at a benefit at the Polk Museum of Art on Thursday, with proceeds benefiting Hope for Haiti Healing, a ministry outreach of the First United Methodist Church of Auburndale led by Wnek. The organization will use the money raised (along with donations that can be made immediately via PayPal at http://HopeForHaitiHealing.com) to build hurricane- and earthquake-proof structures for displaced Haitians in the northern part of the country. Skop has set a personal goal of raising at least $20,000 to assist the organization's efforts.
"One structure will house nine people and cost about $7,000 to build," she said. "I want to raise enough money to build two of these structures and dig a well, so basically I want to raise $20,000-$25,000. If we can house people and make drinking water for them outside their door, I'd be so excited."
The exhibit will showcase 40 of Skop's eye-opening images - many taken in the Haitian towns of Croix-des-Bouquets and Ganthier - that depict residents of all ages in need of food, medical care and comfort. Skop anticipates that some of these images, especially those that show the devastated living conditions in which some Haitians were living (and may still reside), will really resonate with the benefit's attendees.
"One of my favorite images was taken at an orphanage in Croix-des-Bouquet," Skop said. "The side had fallen off of the building, so you could actually see inside the orphanage where their bedrooms were. (By the time we got there), they were staying in a makeshift tent. I hate to call it that because it's not really a tent; it was a bunch of sheets and whatever kind of material they could get their hands on to make this 20-foot by 15-foot structure that (an adult) couldn't even stand up in. This was their bedroom, their kitchen and their schoolroom, and their caregivers were staying in there as well. When they saw us coming, they came out of this tent and all stood there and looked at us. There's a look on their faces of excitement and joy for visitors, but also because they'd possibly be getting something to eat."
Skop saw similar tent-and-stick dwellings in other parts of Haiti, and will not only include photographs of them in the show, but will actually reproduce them as a form of mixed-media art to include in the exhibit.
"The part of my exhibit that is very unique is I'm building a three-dimensional, life-sized structure of what the people in the town of Ganthier were living in," she said. "They were using bed sheets, tying them to sticks and creating something the size of a cubicle. I'm building two complete structures of what these people were living in and some of my images are going to be printed on the sheet."
According to Adam Justice, curator of art at the Polk Museum of Art, Skop's collection of photographs and installation pieces are a great example of using art to create awareness.
"I think with any exhibition the prime focus is education, and I think this serves a dual purpose," Justice said. "We can help Cindy in educating the community on what's still going on in Haiti. Because like most world events, the news picks it up for a while and then drops it, and if you're far removed from it you can kind of forget about it. She's keeping awareness going about what's going on down there and the fact that it's still not positive down there."
Skip Perez, executive editor of The Ledger, says he's pleased to see Skop's work put to good use, as doing so is in line with the mission of the newspaper.
"We're a New York Times Co. newspaper and the first words of our corporate mission statement are 'to enhance society,'" he said. "There's no better way to enhance society than to help those people who are less fortunate than we are and who find themselves in dire need through no fault of their own, and The Ledger lives by that corporate mission statement.
"Cindy's photographic coverage and video coverage of that horrible situation in Haiti for us was world-class work. It stands among the best photojournalism I've seen in a long time," he added.
The benefit will feature guest speakers, and Haitian food and entertainment. Patrons will have the opportunity to purchase photographic prints of the work on display. A donation of $35 for admission is suggested but not require, Skop said.
"If they can pay $5, or $1, that's fine. I'm more interested in people coming and seeing what I saw. I'm hoping they'll be moved by what they see and if they can pay, that's fine. If they can't, that's fine too."