As a traveler, I don’t always get to see the world for what it truly is. Sure, I try to get off the beaten path and make connections with locals, but even so, I barely gain an understanding of the lives people around the world are living. It’s not for lack of trying, but it’s because I don’t spend enough time there. Instead, I travel onto the next city or country, never really spending the time necessary to truly understand a place.
The people who constantly inspire me are those who do slow down and fully immerse themselves somewhere, spending significant time and returning time and time again. These people are the ones who fully involve themselves in a country’s every day life and spend time with that country’s people. Those who go where it isn’t always safe. Those who are weaved into the story of a place and a group of people.
Darren Ornitz is one of those people. He makes me look at the world the way I’ve always wanted to see it and lives it the way I hope I am one day brave enough to. As a photojournalist, Darren gets himself into situations most people would shy away from and because of that, he is able to fully immerse himself within a community. Those people become an extended family and over time, his relationship with them deepens and grows with the connections he develops.
I remember first hearing about the story he is documenting in Panama as we sat and talked over coffee in Brooklyn and being both amazed and inspired. He has been traveling to Panama several times over the past year and a half to document the stories of former gang members who are involved in a gang intervention and reintegration program run by Esperanza Social Venture Club.
However, the story Darren is documenting runs much deeper than the gentrifying community and reintegration of former gang members. Over time it has developed into something else, as he explains:
“The important narrative wasn’t even about gang members or good or bad or success or failure. But that this was really a story about the human experience and one that reflects us all. It’s a story about change and suffering, joy, struggle and love. and one that really illuminates the deep truth that despite the very real circumstances that differentiate us, we’re all united by our shared humanity and experience and connection to one another.
So ultimately I think that this is really a story that highlights what it is we can accomplish when we loosen our prejudices and preconceived ideas and instead do our best to relate to each other from a place of understanding.”
This story is one that we all can relate to and in order to help it continue, he has started a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds he needs to finish his project. Since I wanted to help him any way that I could, I decided it would be important to share his story, and that of Esperanza Social Venture Club, here.
What first brought you to Panama and how did you first hear about the Esperanza Social Venture Club?
I was visiting a friend who had moved to Panama and while I was there I heard about an organization that was working with the gangs in the neighborhood. I’ve spent a lot of time at Rikers working with at-risk youth who are often times part of gangs, and so I emailed them to set up a meeting to learn more about their initiative.
What do you think is the best way for people to relate to each other and to find those common human experiences you speak of?
By first acknowledging that every person in this world, friend, enemy, and stranger are all seeking the same, to be happy and to avoid suffering. And then by letting go of judgments and being willing to engage people with the intention of understanding. If we understand ourselves and the foundations of our mind, then we will see others as only a reflection of ourselves.
How dangerous is it to cover a story where former gang members are involved?
I’ve felt generally safe, but I’ve obviously been around a community of people where violence has been a part of their lives. The first time I was in Panama I was chased out of a fish market by the Colombia drug cartel because they thought I was an undercover DEA agent. And just last November, I was caught in an “anti-gang” raid during a birthday party where I was roughed up by the police and spent some time in jail until they realized I was a journalist.
As someone with limited Spanish, how do you communicate with those you are working with?
It’s been a rewarding experience developing such close relationships with people who I can’t really communicate with verbally. We try, piecing together some words of Spanish and English, but it’s challenging. It’s amazing how close you can get with people simply by spending time with each other, eating, socializing, etc. Day after day I showed up, and over time trust was built and I was let in more.
What kinds of opportunities does Esperanza’s program offer to those it is working with?
Through an initial 8-week program and continued support, Esperanza aims to give the former members an opportunity to integrate into formal society through employment, entrepreneurship, and community leadership rolls. Some of the guys who have gone through the program have also started university as well.
Why did you choose to focus on Juan’s story? What drew you to him?
His willingness to be vulnerable, to be honest, to be forthcoming about his past and the challenges he faces. We became close over the last year and he shares in confidence everything with me. Most importantly I saw how sincere he was in trying to move on from his past ways and the struggle he has gone through to start a legitimate business and become a leader in the community.
Why is it important for you to document this story?
I think its a powerful story, a testament to what we can accomplish when we lessen our judgments and prejudices and do our best to understand and relate. It’s a story about the human process & our potential.
Darren is continuing this story as you read this post, as he’s flying back to Panama today. Be sure to follow him on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook for updates. Want to help him even more? Donate to his Kickstarter Campaign, I know just how much he’ll appreciate your support.