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Meet Ed Olen and his friends from Sobier

Story by TOM JOHNSON

Photos by Ed Olen

If you spend any time around Newport Beach City Hall, you probably know Ed Olen. He started working for Newport Beach TV (NBTV) as a cameraman back in 2007. In addition to covering community events, he intersperses photography into his career. 

That success has garnered Olen a number of photo spreads and covers in local magazines.

He grew up not too far from Newport Beach in Trabuco Canyon and attended Trabuco Hills High School.

Over the last number of years, Olen has traveled to Haiti, first following the devastating earthquake. Along the way, he leaned on his photography talents to put together the makings of an art collection of the personalities of the Haitian people, mixed with many of the symbols of U.S. capitalism.

The contrast is magnificent. “This village is among the most ravaged we’ve seen in Haiti,” Olen said. “It’s third world poverty only 75 minutes from Miami.”

Olen’s art collection of photographs will be displayed beginning Monday, July 8, in the Newport Beach Central Library.

Meet Ed Olen The Happiest Place

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“The Happiest Place on Earth”

I caught up with him last week to talk about his achievements and the upcoming opening of his showing.

Q: How many times have you gone to Haiti to work on this project?

A: This was my 8th trip, 8th year going. Also, this was our 5th year returning to the Village of Sobier.

Q: What was your purpose going there?

A: In the early years after the earthquake, we traveled through our church and worked on rebuilding churches for the first three years. As the country slowly recovered and we got to know the people better, and they told us more of their wants and needs, we decided we wanted to work on something different. 

We saw a health clinic in the list of projects when we were deciding on our next trip. When we arrived at the village, there was almost nothing accomplished on the project except for some rocks outlining the location of the foundation. We knew our team of six was not going to accomplish much in our week there, so our team leader asked how much the local villagers get paid for a day’s work. Three to four dollars a day. So, we hired 25 local villagers to work with us and paid them to work for two weeks after we had departed. We were able to finish the clinic in 2 years.

Q: Where did you come up with the idea for the photo collection and what exactly is it in your own words?

A: I have taken my camera with me each year and took plenty of pictures, but when we saw the dire need in the village of Sobier, I felt like I needed to do something more to get people to pay attention. Within a week of leaving for our third trip to Sobier, I thought of the idea of holding a mirror up to the society obsessed with malls, Mickey, and pop culture that I grew up with and then using people that have no electricity, no running water, no stores, and no internet.

Q: What are some of your greatest or most inspirational remembrances in working with the villagers?

A: My favorite thing about returning to this village is the children. We have gotten to know so many, and they feel like family.

Q: So what is the collection and the size of your showing?

A: The collection consists of 23 12”x16” color photographs and one 24”x36” color photograph

Q: How about favorites? 

A: A couple of my favorites are titled “Happiest Place on Earth,” “Sobier Snapchat” and “Maison d’Hermes.”

Meet Ed Olen Maison

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 “Maison d’Hermes”

Q: What made those your favorites?

A: I like “Happiest Place on Earth” because it takes our obsession of the (Mickey) Mouse to the next level with the gold rhinestones I glued to the hat. Because this village is so remote and doesn’t have electricity, internet or smartphones, they know nothing of our popular culture. They had never seen a movie, let alone a Disney cartoon. 

I feel the same about “Sobier Snapchat” because in a village without smartphones, they know nothing of apps and photo filters, so if they wanted to wear a floral crown, they can’t use an app like we can. They would actually have to wear flowers on their head. 

Finally, I love “Maison d’Hermes” because it spotlights our label culture by presenting it in front of their housing realities.

Q: How long have you been working on getting this showing into Newport Beach?

A: I started shooting this series 2 1/2 years ago in January 2017 and immediately applied with the Arts Commission to have it shown. I’m actually glad it took as long as it did to get scheduled, because it gave me two more visits to Haiti to shoot other ideas that I came up with.

Meet Ed Olen Sobier Snapchat

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 “Sobier Snapchat”

Q: Give us thoughts on what it will mean to you once it opens and what you hope people will enjoy about it?

A: I am so excited to finally share it with people other than showing it off on my phone. I hope it may inspire others to help us help this amazing village. Now that the health clinic is finished, we are looking for people that might want to help sponsor a weekly visit of a doctor, nurse and a dentist, and a monthly visit of an ophthalmologist. 

Q: After this showing, what’s next for the project?

A: I’m going to look to see if I could get it exhibited in LA after Newport.

The exhibition will be on display during library operating hours, July 8 through September 6. If you are interested in donating to the project, visit www.sobierproject.com.