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Nigel Barker turns lens on Haiti, AIDS

Cause Celeb talks with fashion photographer, filmmaker and actor Nigel Barker about his work to raise awareness of global problems such as hunger and pediatric AIDS.
Nigel Barker and Unik Ernest, founder of Edeyo, outside the school in Bel-Air, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Nigel Barker and Unik Ernest, founder of Edeyo, outside the school in Bel-Air, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.Nigel Barker LLC
/ Source: NBC News

Question: How did you find out about the Edeyo Foundation and how did you become involved in the documentary?

Barker: I met Unik [Ernest] quite a while ago. I’ve known him for about, I would say some 12 years. Over the course of that time, he had talked to me and discussed at length Haiti and the situation in Haiti. Obviously, being someone who travels, see the world, what have you, it's hard to believe that things are as bad as they are in Haiti. Then, a couple years ago he started the Edeyo Foundation.

At the time, I was just like, “What are you going to do? How can you help? What possibly could you do?” It seems like such an extraordinary problem. His idea was to start the school with his mother. I kind of watched him. I’m already involved in many different charities and organizations, most of which are very big charities, like the Humane Society of the United States or the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

It was amazing to see what Unik was doing personally. I said to him after he’d been going for about a year, “Look, what I could do that would probably be most useful is use what I do. As a photographer and filmmaker, go down to Haiti with you and film for people to see what’s happening.”

We originally set out to go down to Haiti with him and at the time Anne Vincent from Vogue was coming. There was couple of different groups who were coming with us on this trip. Right before we went, the food riots [April of 2008] broke out around the world, specifically in Haiti they were very, very bad. They overthrew the government, there was widespread looting. The U.S. Embassy actually closed and the Canadian Embassy also closed, having been bombed. We were warned by the U.S. government not to go. That if we were to go, we would have no protection and that it would be foolhardy. At that point, obviously Vogue pulled out. Actually everyone pulled out. And we pretty much pulled out too. We said to Unik, “Look this is not the time. It’s too dangerous. I just don’t think its possible.”

He was obviously very upset, but understood. At the same time for me, it was really irritating. I thought to myself, we had already spent the various amounts of money to go and we also knew this was an important time to go down there. I spoke to various people who were in Haiti and I contacted other groups. I remember I finally spoke to a nun, who was about 70 years old, and she had just come back, right after the riots. She said to me, “Nigel, you know it’s a desperate situation down there, but there’s never been a time that they need you more than now. Yes, it’s difficult and it’s dangerous. But if you’re careful and smart. You’ll be fine. You just have to be street....”

Nigel Barker photographing some of The Edeyo Foundation's school children

So we thought, “Listen, OK we’ve got our tickets. We’re motivated. I’ve got my team, I’ve got my camera man.” I called Unik. I said “Unik, we’re going.” He went, “Really?” “We are going. So make it happen.” So a day later we got on the planes, went down there, and shot the film "Haiti: Hunger and Hope."

We were down there for five days and six nights. It was a very intense experience. We had guns pulled on us while we were there, which actually doesn’t appear in the film because we had to pull our cameras down in order to get the guns out of our faces. That was in the cemetery, ironically. I think someone was upset about the burial.

The soul and the crux of this film is that Haiti is in a very desperate situation yet there are the disenfranchised youth that are there, and of course they make up 50 percent of the population. Without education, half of them have no chance, but with education, through schools like Edeyo and not just people giving food but actually through the education that helps them build their own lives. It is possible to have a future.

Q: Is there one moment or image that stands out in your mind from your trip to Haiti?

Barker: It’s not the horror, it’s not the shock. Believe me, there are times when I wanted people to think, “Goodness, it looks stunning, but you can’t imagine how bad it smells right now. If this was a scratch-and sniff-TV you’d turn off for sure.” But those moments aren’t the moments.

The moments that really stand out are how welcoming and how loving and how decent so many people were, in such diabolical situations. We had people smiling at us and welcoming us. At the school, Unik’s mother, who is, to be honest with you, like an angel. She really is one of the most extraordinary people. She’s taken in 11 orphans herself and she’s a 75-year-old woman. Her heart is just massive. To me, that’s the part that really makes it. I’ve traveled all over the world and it’s rarely the place that makes it for me. It’s almost always the people.

Q: What did you learn from your trip to Haiti that you didn’t know before you left?

Barker: I’m always looking. I’m a filmmaker, I’m a visual person. So you’re always sort of trying to work out what’s happening. I don’t know if there is a specific thing, other than the fact I didn’t really know that hell on earth really, truly existed. I’ve been to some horrible places, as well as some extraordinarily beautiful ones. I think what makes it so shocking is when you get this sort of … pearl essentially. These gorgeous waters and that is just destroyed.

I mean, the island of Hispaniola, which shares the Dominican Republic. The fact that one side is really heaven and the other side is hell. It's not obviously the whole of Haiti because much of Haiti is stunning. It’s the cities and Port au Prince. I just was shocked. Cite Soleil the slum there. It was diabolical. It was like a nuclear bomb had gone off. There wasn’t a building standing above a story tall. There was bullet holes and shrapnel in everything. It was something out of like a movie. It didn’t seem real. It was almost like an exaggeration.

If Hollywood had done it you wouldn’t have believe them. You’d say, “OK, they’ve taken it to an extreme here. Just to get an effect.” That’s how it felt. For me, that was a huge opener. Every single member of my team, all of us, when we got back, not one person didn’t cry. And several were traumatized for weeks, from what they’d seen.

Q: Can you just explain how a project like this, in comparison to the work you do on television, how being in both worlds makes you feel?

Barker: I’m on television and I work on "America’s Next Top Model" and I work in the fashion industry and I’ve done that for 17 years, but there’s never been a time, personally, where I haven’t been motivated by the world around me. Even with fashion. Fashion for me is a means to an end. I’m passionate about it. But it doesn’t keep me up at night. It's not what I dream about. It’s not the future. It’s not anything for my children. That’s the real world and I think that’s what really rings my bell.

Personally, I get excited when I can actually make some kind of difference. I know that these are small steps. Through what I can do, which is taking photographs that hopefully can move people, because obviously with words you can wax poetic about just about anything and make people sort of perhaps potentially see something.

You can also feel like you are just spicing it up with an image. The viewer makes their own mind up. They can look at something and say, “Oh I don’t like that.” Or “I like that.” Or “That’s beautiful, that’s not beautiful.” I think that’s a very important tool. Especially with filmmaking. You can tell a story and show people and take them somewhere. For me, that is why these projects are so important.

Q: Do you have any plans to work with Edeyo in the future?

Barker: Absolutely. I still get letters from people who have seen the film. I got a letter just the other day from a lady whom I don’t know, who said she’d seen the film and that she’d donated $2,500 to the Edeyo Project because she was so moved. I get e-mails and letters on my blog,, from the Haitian community at large saying, “Thank you.” You can’t help but still be involved.

My role isn’t so much to necessarily get involved with just Haiti and just do Haiti. I do what I can and I stick around whenever I can add any weight to it at all I do. I tend not to just be there for the sake of it.

Obviously for me, I would love to go down and shoot another film and sort of where they are at a couple of years from now or a year from now. See where the money people have raised and what a difference its made. I think what’s so important in these projects is that people see improvement, and they see results.

Barker is also involved with the , which seeks to bring awareness to pediatric AIDS and raises funds for HIV/AIDS research. The foundation has operations in 17 countries. Recently, it started a campaign called Join the Moment: Create a Generation Free of HIV. Its goal is to, by 2013, decrease by half global pediatric HIV infections.

Barker recently traveled to Tanzania to film a documentary about the foundation’s efforts to reach 15 million pregnant women around the world. As one of the foundation’s celebrity ambassadors, Barker has participated in several events held by the organization in addition to filming the "Generation Free" documentary.

Q: Can you tell me about the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation?

Barker: It’s a foundation that was founded by Elizabeth Glaser, who was the wife of Paul Glaser, who was an actor from "Starsky and Hutch." Essentially, many odd years ago, she was delivering her baby Ariel, and there was some routine problems during the childbirth and was infused with seven pints of blood. It was at a time when they weren’t screening for HIV, it was right at the pinnacle when that was all breaking, and very very tragically, she got infused with HIV-positive blood. As she didn’t know this, AIDS or HIV didn’t really manifest in any way until several years later, so as a result of that she, via breastfeeding, made Ariel HIV-positive as well. In fact, infected her next child, Jake Glaser, several years later, and she still had no idea she was HIV-positive.

So, long story short on that, when the kids started to get sick, and she started to get sick, that’s when she realized what had happened. At the time there was little to know information about pediatric AIDS. It was all about adults who are HIV-positive and there was no medication for children, nothing. So, all the medication that children were using were adult medication, and children are very different from adults. They’re not just little adults, they have totally different metabolisms, and they need their own medication. She pretty much pioneered pediatric AIDS research and got together some of the best minds in science, and lobbied Congress and Senate, and spoke at Democratic conventions, and really made a big deal of it, and used her husband’s celebrity status and her own to really get this point across.

Tragically, Elizabeth has died of AIDS, of being HIV-positive, about over a decade ago, almost 15 years now actually. Her daughter Ariel is also dead. But Jake lives on, and is a healthy young man.

More recently in 2006/2007, I was asked to help and get involved with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and their fundraisers, and it was due to "America’s Next Top Model." I was like, “OK, great, I’ll come along and I’ll lend my support.”

Nigel Barker captures members of a Maasai village on camera in northern Tanzania while filming the "Generation Free" documentary in February 2009. The foundation is reaching out to midwives in the Maasai and teaching them how to prevent HIV from being transmitted from mother to child.

Q: Can you tell me about the film “Generation Free” and how the project came about?

Barker: When I met Pam [Barnes] I was talking to her about what I could do, and I wanted to do more. It’s one thing for me to be showing up and say, “Hi, I’m Nigel Barker,” and waving, and saying hi to people. I’ve never enjoyed that role specifically. That very same formula that I ran with "Haiti: Hunger and Hope," and for "A Sealed Fate" with the Humane Society of the United States. It’s a formula where, as a photographer and as a filmmaker, it’s not just can I lend my celebrity from TV, but it’s the trade sort to speak that I’m trained in. It can be used to motivate people so that, yes I can use the celebrity to get the people to watch, but the power is in the imagery and the people can make up their own mind.

I wanted to develop a tool for the foundation that they can spread the word, spread the message, show people what they have done, and show people what needs to be done. This is a story of hope as well, and it’s a story of success, and the fact, at the same time, it’s a story of if we don’t act now, we have a disaster on our hands.

To activate people and to motivate them, and Pamela and the foundation would love a piece like this, and we worked it all out and tried to work out how to get to where we were going, because it would represent the foundation the best, and what’s happening and the situation. We traveled to Los Angeles, to New York, to Washington, D.C., and spoke to congresswomen and men and spoke to the Senate and House, and obviously went to Tanzania for a few weeks. This all happened in February of this year.

Q: How did making this film affect you personally?

Barker: Enormously. I mean all these projects always do. They are very different in many ways, but I’m a father, I have two children. I have a son who’s 4 and a daughter that’s 1. You want nothing but the best for them at all times. I remember when my daughter was born, in two weeks she got the flu, and we spent Christmas day and Christmas eve, and the next couple of days, in the hospital, in the intensive care unit, in the isolation unit. I remember just looking around the ward, and there were these children running around, who were stuck there direct from what have you, trying to play on a tricycle going around the ward. It felt so lonely and so scary, and at the same time, the people there were so fantastic. You feel for these people, when you think of pediatric AIDS these are children that are being born HIV-positive, through no fault of their own.

It’s nothing to do with whether they’re sexually active or promiscuous, or anything to do with them at all. They simply are born this way. They are given no chance in life. The fact of the foundation is there to change that, to spotlight this issue, and actually come up with a solution, to work out a cure so to speak, or certainly a vaccine almost as this situation was extraordinary.

Q: You’ve made other cause related documentaries in the past. Why is making documentaries like this so important?

Barker: Being English, I think the documentary philosophy … back then in England, they were very big on it. The BBC loved them, I grew up watching them, being fascinated by them. There’s very much a realness and a rawness to them. I think working on reality TV, there’s a similar rawness and realness to it, too. Obviously sometimes on "America’s Next Top Model," you have to make sure of a lot of things, that the idea is if I can get an audience like that to love a show in the numbers that they do with "Top Model," and reputedly we have a global audience of about 100 million weekly are watching the show in one form or another.

To say, look if I can grab their attention and just spread it in a direction that is a serious topic as well, and I think that’s very important. Tyra herself has many many times have found how important she thinks it is to be a role model as well as a fashion model. If you’re given the spotlight in any way, shape, or form, to use that celebrity to do good or create a better world, then I think you should. Personally, there’s no larger reward and nothing that makes me feel better than trying to help. It’s about the mentality, there’s a pleasure in the giving not the receiving.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add in closing?

Barker: One thing to look out for is we are doing a new film called "The Last Orangutan." Look out for it next year, that’s our next mission. It’s going to be exciting. I think the orangutan population has declined by 90 percent in the past 10 years, and if it carries on in this fashion, it’s going to be extinct in the next decade, so we’re out there to film that and cover that.