Maurice Henri is a new breed of photographer. He is not driven by financial reward but by a genuine concern and passion for humanity.
Henri’s interest in photography began as a young man in 1977 while working as division manager at a Woolco store in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His love for the people and scenery of this beautiful province motivated him to pick up a camera and start shooting. When he realized that his hobby was becoming a passion, Henri upgraded his Instamatic to a more advanced camera system and a photographer was born.
Soon, Henri was living a double life. He spent 10 years working a day job in an optical business in Moncton while moonlighting as a photographer on the weekends. In time he was specializing in family portraits and weddings. In 1989 he finally decided to follow his heart. On a Friday afternoon, he resigned from his day job and the very next Monday morning opened his first studio. He ran the studio successfully until 2003 when he decided he wanted to travel more, meet new people, and photograph different locations.
Another turning point for Henri came in 2005 when he decided to join fellow photographer, friend, and mentor Freeman Patterson on a photographic excursion to South Africa. It was an incredible opportunity — two weeks of stunning landscape photography. Henri decided to stay behind for an additional two weeks to see and experience what really interested him, the villages and people of South Africa. He rented a four-wheel drive, hired a translator, and set off to explore.
Henri happened upon a small village in the mountains called Nourivier where he met a very special little girl named Sandouy. He knew there would be many hungry children in this village, so he took with him as much fresh fruit as he could to give them. Sandouy received an orange and made a lasting impression on Henri because she was more interested in hugging and smelling the rare delicacy then eating it. Henri spoke with her and eventually asked if she had a dream. What she replied changed his life forever. Her dream was for her village to have a school where she could learn to read and write and eventually, when she got older, she could take care of her village. Henri was so moved by this little girl’s story that, in the heat of the moment, he promised to help and build her the school she was dreaming of.
When the reality of what he had said sunk in, Henri panicked. How was he going to make this very big promise come true? The solution came to him during a fundraising event that helped launch the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign. In one night almost $150 000 was raised by selling limited edition photographs from the trip to Africa. On that same night, Henri also sold a one-of-a-kind landscape photo for $10 000. This generous corporate sale is what built the promised school in Nourivier in 2006.
From the success of the Nourivier project, Cameras for Healing was born. Henri kept thinking of that little girl in Africa and all he wanted to do was help even more. He then spent time thinking and researching art therapy, trauma in Africa, and child soldiers, which eventually led him to a post-civil war Sierra Leone. In this country, 10- to 12-year-old boys had been kidnapped and brainwashed to become killing machines and girls had been forced into sex slavery by the rebel army. This brutal war ended in 2004 after 12 long years of pain and suffering.
After 12 months of planning, Henri spearheaded and almost entirely financed the first Cameras for Healing trip to Sierra Leone. Armed with the belief that art can be therapeutic, he took a small team of volunteers and camera equipment with him to a small village near Freetown. He partnered with local people who where able to bring together groups of young adults that were still traumatized and emotionally damaged from the 12-year war.
The Cameras for Healing project in the village took place over seven days. The participants were taught some basic tips on how to use the cameras. This progresses to a walk around to photograph life in the village. Later, as they gain more confidence with the camera, specific projects are assigned. Henri states, “They had to document what gave them hope, what makes them happy, and what makes them proud.” To his surprise, Henri saw that almost all photographed their children. Henri witnessed the power of the photograph when the prints were given to the participants. “They all embraced their photographs and shouted and screamed with joy. The photographs gave them proof that their children existed. Many in the village who had lost their children had no such evidence and had only their memories.”
A couple of remarkable participants in this project stood out to Henri. A girl, named Fatima, about 26 years old and with seven children. She was so cautious and unsure that for the first while she just sat in silence looking at the floor. After almost two days of activities she finally came around and started taking pictures. Slowly but surely her eyes came up and little by little she started smiling. The project was slowly drawing her out of her shell. She finally shared with Henri that as a young girl she had been kidnapped by rebels and locked in a small room with no windows. She did not see the light of day for nine years and was a victim of rape and physical abuse at the hands of her captors. On the last day of the project she quietly called Henri over, looked him in the eye, gave him a tight hug and whispered, “Thank you. Don’t forget me.”
Another individual named Sillah was so traumatized by the war that he had not slept a full night for the past 12 years. Henri tried to draw him out and asked him what his dream was. Sillah mentioned that he was good with his hands and dreamed of becoming a mechanic. In this area, mechanics work their trade on the side of the road. Henri gave him a project to photograph the mechanics and make some connections. The next day Henri was horrified to see Sillah black and blue all over. Henri asked, “What happened?” Sillah replied, “I did what you told me and started photographing the mechanics. Then the mechanics beat on me and wanted to steal my camera.” At this point Sillah proudly pulls out the camera from his pocket and adds, “But they did not get it.” Sillah continues, “Right there and then I was willing to die to save the camera because it is giving me hope.” What the mechanics did not realize was that Sillah was a former soldier; with a proud voice he exclaimed, “You should see what they look like.”
Henri also completed a five-year commitment with Cameras for Healing in Sierra Leone. During this span he travelled there twice a year, worked with multiple groups of wartime survivors, built a brand new school and refurbished another. He also supplied a local college with 300 computers for its educational needs. Because this project was so new and difficult to understand by potential investors in North America, Henri had to finance about 85 percent of the project from his own wallet. His only major sponsor in the beginning was Olympus which graciously supplied him with the cameras he needed for the participants.
Henri has a three-year commitment with Cameras for Healing in Haiti, working with teenagers abandoned and orphaned by the earthquake of 2010. The boys typically find themselves in trouble with crime, gangs, and drugs, and many girls fall into sex slavery and prostitution. Henri is using photography to gather and gain these children’s trust, but the ultimate goal is to find a family to take them in and provide for their schooling. Education is always a priority with Cameras for Healing. The problem is that many Haitian families already have three or four children to feed and send to school. As an incentive, Henri is committing to feeding all the children in the household in exchange for the parents taking in one orphaned teenager. He is hoping to sponsor up to 30 of them.
Henri is planning more Cameras for Healing projects. If Henri’s story leaves you wondering “How can I help?,” he most needs volunteers with a strong passion for photography and humanity. If you consider helping, do not hesitate to contact him because Henri is always willing to talk about his vision. You never know what may happen — maybe you too can join the new breed of concerned photographers.
We featured Maurice Henri and this article in our Spring/summer 2014: The Concerned Photographer - Issue #40. If you’re looking to be inspired by other conscientious photographers- get the issue HERE.
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