AU Excellence: Humans of Haiti Founder Steven Baboun

BY: TARYN DANIELS

As a photographer, I respect creatives who don’t hide in their art. That’s what drew me to Steven Baboun. It’s hard not to take notice of his work because of its honesty, bold colors and the cultural expression that shines through. Whether it be on Instagram, his website or in the amazing platforms he creates, it’s easy to see where his soul lies. 

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Baboun and pick his brain about his work, our joint love of Foodstagrams and what he’s doing during his final semester at AU.

Taryn Daniels: Describe your artistic style. 

Steven Baboun: That’s hard, because it does change. If I could describe my artistic style, [I would say] island living and island essence. [Mainly] the celebration of color and story, through the lense of living in the West Indies or living that Caribbean lifestyle.  

TD: Who are your influences, artistic or otherwise? 

SB: Robert Mapplethorpe is one. He’s an American photographer and he did a lot of work with the LGBTQ community in the ‘80s, and I think his self-portraits and portraits of people are really bold, which is something I strive for [in my own work]. My other one is actually Solange Knowles. Her visual language, through photos and film, is really powerful. Andres Serrano is another photographer that is awesome. Those three really hit home for me. 

TD: Which do you like better, being in front of the camera or behind it?

SB: That’s a good question, because lately I’ve been doing a lot of self-portraits. I think it depends on my level of self-confidence. I definitely love being behind [the camera]. I love documenting others and their experiences, better than documenting my own. But I feel like sometimes to tell the story you really want to tell, the photographer needs to use their physical bodies to tell it, because it doesn’t really get across [otherwise]. You study and see your subjects differently from behind the camera. To get a powerful message across, the photographer needs to bring that piece of them in front of the camera.  

TD: What made you move to integrate cultural expression into your art? Was it just a natural migration, coming from growing up in Haiti? Or did you think, “I have this big platform, I should use it to say something meaningful”?

SB: It was definitely a progression. I never understood what I was doing with my photography until like a year and a half ago, so the narrative of “the other Haitian” started when I came to the United States. For some people, I was their first point of contact with Haiti, and that really f----d them up. So it’s a different perspective of Haiti, you know? A gay narrative. A queer narrative. A Middle Eastern narrative. [My work] brings all that in and affirms that I’m Haitian, and that you don’t have to look a certain way to be Haitian. That’s what I started developing as the way I want to tell my stories. It was a hard thing to admit because people always s--t on you, saying “You’re not really Haitian” or “You didn’t come from xyz.”

TD: Tell me about Humans of Haiti. How did it start? How involved are you now? Where do you hope it will be?

SB: Humans of Haiti came about three years ago, in summer 2014. Me and my friends were debriefing about our first-year college experiences, and a lot of the commonalities were [things like] people asking us if we lived in huts or ate dogs and cats. We were laughing about it, but we also [realized] that it was alarming how people thought we weren’t a civilization. So we thought, “Okay, we’ve accumulated enough friends in the states that if we launched something through social media to expose the truth about who we actually are, maybe they’ll get a clue and we can start to erase that ignorance.” Me and my two best friends then started going around to our neighborhood and talking to people for hours and hours, actually listening to their stories. In Haiti, the population doesn’t really have access to social media, so we had to really be careful [to say], “Hey look, this is what we are doing. We aren’t making money off of you or exploiting you.” We definitely developed relationships with the people we photographed. Then my friends got super busy, I love them, but they did. So I took it on by myself and it’s been kind of hard. It’s actually gotten attention from Caribbean magazines, so we are super excited for the future. But we’re rebranding, so stay tuned! I'm excited.

TD: How do you manage while you’re here in the U.S.?

SB: It’s really difficult. I started reaching out to Haitian photographers to see if they want to contribute, but it’s hard because people ask for compensation. It does take a lot of time and effort, so asking for help without pay tends to be a big issue. But I am hoping to go back to Haiti this summer and actually sort it out by talking to local photographers and schools that teach photography that would be interested. 

TD: Let’s talk about Spoon AU. What was like for you to be apart of establishing something that is now so vital to our campus culture? 

SB: The idea came from one of my good friends, AmiLin. Spoon University popped up on her Facebook feed, so she called me and said, “Did you know there was a Food Network for us, for college students? You can learn how to make fancy food in your dorm!” I thought it was a crazy and good idea, considering how much we love to eat and cook in our dorms. She asked if I wouldn’t mind taking photos and I said I was definitely in. We gathered everyone we could, talked about it and became a solid group, so we went to Student Activities and became an official group there. Then we did our launch party and people were like “woah this is insane.” So we started an Instagram, and I think the reason we became so “big” on Instagram is because food is universal. Everyone follows food accounts. People want to know what this giant doughnuts and where they can find it. We’re based off positivity and people were curious [about us]. People wanted to know what we were eating, so it was a great natural progression. Then we joined Student Media, which was the best decision. I transitioned, so I no longer do Spoon. But I am a national advisor for Spoon HQ, so I advise a couple chapters. 

TD: Do you have any favorite Foodstagram accounts or Foodstagrammers? 

SB: I really love Skylar Bouchard. Her posts are young, free, very liberal and relatable to youth culture. She promotes health, but she doesn’t promote only eating healthy. She promotes the balance between “I’m going to pig out with this doughnut, which is okay,” and “I may or may not go work out the next day, which is fine too.” She really brings that “fitness is not about eating right all the time” vibe, which is interesting. I love weird posts like Black Tap NYC and their crazy milkshakes. Food is an art. That’s what drew me too it, not necessarily that I love to eat, but because it’s so versatile in its visual language and I was just so intrigued by that.

TD: What’s your favorite social media platform?

SB: Instagram, for sure. A lot of people say artists aren’t on Instagram because they have portfolios, but I disagree. Instagram is a way to connect with other artists that maybe have the same vision as you. A lot of my opportunities have come because of Instagram. People know you from your brand, and it’s a great tool to educate and connect. 

TD: Speaking of social media, you have pretty big following across all your platforms. Give me three tips for getting that follower/like count up. 

SB: Be genuine. Be the person that people would meet face-to-face on your social media. Be ethical and be mindful. If you are a content creator or visual artist, always prolifically post your work. Always be on top of it. Even if you’re doing a series, you need to constantly be creating. People might think it’s annoying at first to always see you on their feed, but soon it becomes something that they come to expect as they follow your evolution. Finally, celebrate others – other artists or your friends. Showcase other people’s work. A lot of friendships I’ve made and opportunities I have gotten have been because I loved a particular kind of work, so I pushed it on my circle.

TD: Are there any major projects you are working on right now? 

SB: For now, I am working on a project called “Last Semester in Flash,” but the title might change. I started it in January, and it’s just me documenting the people, experiences and spaces that have made my four years [at AU]. I am just taking photos of my friends, using really hard flash to accentuate the organicness of what I am trying to capture. At the end, hopefully I can turn it into a coffee table book or something. I am also working on another art film when I go back to Haiti.

TD: You’re graduating in May. What’s next for you? 

SB: This is going to sound so pretentious, but I don’t want to work for corporate America. I don’t want to contribute to a creative organization that isn’t going to credit my mind and creative work. I don’t want to work for companies that choose not to tell the other stories. I am slowly realizing that Hollywood is racist and even though they try to integrate minorities and diversity, it just feels forced. I want to go into the field with either an organization or small company that aims to change narratives in Hollywood, specifically in America. I just want to be an artist and keep creating, hopefully getting paid to do so, while continuing to tell the narratives that people don’t normally see.  

TD: Style is a huge part of your brand. Do you see your clothes as another art form?

SB: I love fashion. I think it’s a huge part of storytelling and the clothes that people wear, whatever that might be, are really important to communicate their narrative. So a lot of times when I take my self-portraits, I deliberately choose what I want to wear. For Founders Day, I made this vest with patches and took photos against this brick wall. [Fashion] is a huge part of my confidence in front of the camera. I’m not trying to look good, I’m trying to fit what I’m wearing physically with what I’m thinking creatively. It makes me confident enough to snap the photo. 

TD: What goes into your mind when coming up with a concept for a shoot? What are your first steps? 

SB: I am super bipolar in that way, very two-sided. One day, it’s colorful walls, fruit and beautiful colors. The next day, it’s naked, dark veil and a bathtub. It just depends on my mood. For a concept to be really good, I study it for like a month. For example if I am creating a commentary on sexuality, then I will do research on that and immerse myself in feminist literature and culture, maybe even Haitian feminist literature if there is any. It’s about really immersing yourself and embodying your concept. So when I get into the studio to shoot, it’s just about organically releasing energy. It’s a very spiritual experience. The things I shoot in Haiti are also very organic, because it’s just in my blood.

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TD: And finally, who is the wokest person you know?

SB: I think Janelle Monae. I love her! I’ve loved her since “ArchAndroid.” I think she’s passionate and compassionate, she fights for the stories that aren’t told. As for a regular person I know, I’d say Amberly Alene Ellis. She’s a graduate student here, who does work in Cuba and has a documentary coming out about Cuban female skateboarders. She just sees the world differently and she’s a breath of fresh air in her work and way of being. She believes in humans, more than I can ever imagine believing in humans. She has so much faith in storytelling and the black and Afro-Caribbean communities, which is so inspiring to see. She’s the reason why I can juggle from concept to concept.

All images are provided by Steven Baboun.