A decade ago, I was working for a newspaper in Cayman. Among other things, each day I was expected to find a ‘Person of the Day’ for the newspaper front-page. This meant going on the hot road to stop random people and ask, “Can I take your photo and you tell me something about yourself?”
In a small country where you might recognize your neighbor or friend on the cover, it actually started to sell papers. It reached the point when the newspaper got complaints from Caymanians, because, ‘Why is it always Jamaicans?!’ Jamaicans were simply willing.
Our Jamaica’s Cecile Brown had a similar realization. But Cecile has the rare gift of empathy, to get people to really unburden themselves. She knows that, universally, everyday people might welcome the chance to speak — and who doesn’t want to feel like they matter for a minute.
Camera, notebook, and release form in hand, Cecile is still only doing this part-time, despite some fitful interest from media companies.
Her full-time job takes her around the island — where she also gets to meet her subjects. But I wonder what Cecile could achieve with more time, such as maybe a snapshot of Jamaican society as it is being lived at this point in time.
Right now she’s trying to publish a book that will compile some of the more popular stories from her Facebook page, and some new material.
‘’I've been in Jamaica for about eight years. I was a naturalized citizen in America; because of my federal conviction…
Empathy as power
It’s more like: ‘Hey, how are you doing, how’s your day?’”
“‘OK.’ And next thing you know we’re talking … But I always tell them if they’re not ready it’s OK. And they’ll stare into space a little bit and then ‘Alright.’ And I have my pen, my book and we take it from there.”
Her inbox she shows me, can get flooded with replies. For the senders, as she shows me some samples, she’s helped release.
“There are so many: ‘Thank for sharing my story’; ‘I’ve never told anyone this before’; ‘I can’t believe you let me get this out’; or ‘I feel like a burden has been taken off my shoulders.’”
Cecile plays me a voice note from someone who was struggling with gambling, but who says that since meeting her he’s been able to come to terms with his demons. That one Facebook post was what it took for him to open up.
It wasn’t just him, it wasn’t just the others, but it was also herself.
''They told me I had ruined my life and it would be over. They said I would not amount to anything, but failure was and…
Her own story
“In January 2014 my mother called and said that she couldn’t remember her name. So, we took her to University Hospital and we found out that she had cancer which had spread to her brain and she stopped walking, talking, eating, feeding — and in six weeks she was dead, she just passed.”
Caring for her mother, Cecile who has her own health challenges, soon became sick from the stress. Her friend Liz reminded her of a conversation a year back, knowing Cecile’s passion for photography and storytelling- that why doesn’t she start a local version of Humans of New York?
“One Sunday I just took my camera onto the street and started talking to random people and collecting stories.”
“Maybe I posted five and Liz liked the page, she invited others to like the page and before long I had 20 people following the page. It was just friends and family at first. But it started to grow, and I felt like this, what I did, was my therapy.”
“People who I’ve interviewed will always say ‘you don’t know what you’ve done for me’, but they don’t understand what they have given me in letting me into a place that nobody else has gone.
“On Friday February 13th, 1998 I lost my son C.J. He was one year and 6 months. I remember he was asleep in his bed…
Healing through others
“So… I started to heal from it. And when I first started telling the stories I used to cry a lot but after a while the tears dried up — but I still get emotional depending on the story I’m telling but I’m finding I’m a little stronger. Yeah.”
As a single mom it took a while for her to have the time to be able to pursue her dream. That responsibility is also why she couldn’t take chances. There’s been interest from media, who she says sometimes ask her for the contacts of her interviews, and one tentative offer from a media house. But unfortunately — for Cecile, and them — none have seen the same value as her readers.
With her now adult son having migrated to the United States, with an ambition to join their air force, she is more confident, and has more time, to take the next step.
“For me it’s not just getting a book out there and selling it and making money; for me it’s revisiting some of the people whose stories I’ve documented and actually invested in, like a girl whose ambition it is to get a degree and a little boy who wants to be in pilot.”
“He was in St Elizabeth wearing no shoes and he stood beside a stall selling tomatoes and I said to him ‘what do you do want to be?’ And he said, ‘I want to be a pilot’. It’s not about the money, it’s about doing something, giving back.”
“When I don’t post maybe for a week I get messages ‘are you OK?’ Every time I take too long, a week, I’m getting the messages.”
She just wants to get in her car and to drive and keep driving until she sees the next story walking by.
To contact Cecile, message her on Facebook: Our Jamaica