In Eboni’s footsteps: a photo biography

Photographer: Heidi Harf

Essay: Heidi Harf

In October of 2015, I was asked by Casa Colombia, a local foundation that helps provide medical care to people most in need, to spend a week with the team documenting their visit and work. The foundation asked me to follow some of the children during their surgeries, and document their progress. These images would be used for their fundraising. 

This is how I met Julia and Ebony.

At 8 in the morning, I arrived at the public hospital in Buga, about two hours from my home. The corridors of the Colonial-style building were lined with plastic chairs, filled with hopeful parents, many who had travelled for the past two days from their villages and cities. With x-rays and medical reports in hand, they waited their turn for an evaluation.  

Among all this hope and tension, smiles and tears, there was a little girl who was dragging herself around on the floor, not able to walk or crawl properly. 

I won’t lie, I felt some shock when I first saw her. She had palms for a hand, but no fingers. She barefoot, and I saw that she had about 10 toes on each foot, and those numerous toes were turned inward about 90 degrees making it almost impossible to stand.  

This was Ebony. She was born with bilateral polydactyly of the feet (extra toes on both feet), sindactyly of the hands (fused fingers), scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine) and a dislocated hip.  In spite of what you might think, Ebony was not at all shy. She was singing, and making everyone in the corridor smile. Everyone stared at her, but it was because she demanded their attention with her vibrant personality. I fell in love with her, everyone did. 

Ebony’s surgeries took hours. For the first two, I was in the operating room with the doctors, leaving periodically to communicate Ebony’s progress to Julia. After her surgeries I would visit her in the hospital and at the half-way house where she was staying, in Cali. It was relatively easy to develop my relationship with Julia and Ebony; they were very grateful to the foundation and the doctors from the US. Julia immediately opened up to me and allowed me to photograph their story. 

Ebony, true to her nature, just hammed it up for the camera. I was there with them in vulnerable moments, as well as in happy occasions such as getting fitted for her prosthesis. 

Over the past three years I have developed a wonderful friendship with Julia and Ebony. I have visited them in their home in Buenaventura on multiple occasions, accompanied Ebony to school, and together we have gone to many doctors appointments. 

After working on the project for 3.5 years now, I have realized it has nothing do to about Ebony's handicaps, even though that’s how it began. This story has everything to do about a loving and strong relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter. I want both Julia and Ebony to have a recollection of their relationship. 

This project an opportunity for me to share my love of photography, my joy for life, and a way to communicate the selflessness and love of the individuals  from the Casa Colombia and the US doctors who come here to treat people like Ebony. While these images are moving to many and have been well-received, this story belongs to Ebony and Julia, and they are my most important critics. 

I do not foresee this project ending anytime soon. So many people in Ebony’s circumstances succumb to the lack of resources and adverse upbringing. But I believe Ebony will grow up and succeed, and I will be there to see it. 

Heidi Harf splits her time between Colombia and her childhood home in New York. In addition to photographing families and portraits, she is committed to long-term documentation of humanitarian efforts in Colombia, specifically with not-for-profit foundations that offer free medical care to children with no resources. her images have assisted in fundraising to provide care and long-term recovery services for young, underprivileged patients.

“For me, family is everything and I look forward to the times we are all together. My mother always said, ‘Life is not a dress rehearsal.’ I want to live my life by that motto. Its not always easy, but I am trying to be more adventurous, more mindful in what I do everyday. I am always learning, and constantly growing as an individual, a mother, a wife, and an artist.”