I’ve been meaning for quite some time to write a post about my experience early this year covering the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The earthquake occurred January 12, and according to the Haitian government killed over 200,000 people, injured 300,000 and left 1,000,000 homeless.
I spent just over 4 days in Haiti two weeks after the earthquake. It was a whirlwind experience, devastating, marking.
Lately, I have been trying to get back to Haiti. In the last month I have been on a roller-coaster of “yes, you’re going and you’re leaving in two days” and then “no, the trip is off pending further notice” and back again. As I write, I’m sad to say the trip is off. Of the three Virginia-based nonprofits I was trying to cover, one has had to cancel their trip. They were supposed to be in Jacmel, Haiti, right now building a temporary school, but could not afford the trip because of an onslaught of new government-imposed “fees” on all their construction material and equipment.
I will continue to pursue the chance to return to this beautiful and haunting place, but in the meantime I wanted to share my experience from my first trip. Below is the piece I was asked to write for the paper upon my return. I’ve posted the original, unedited version, my words versus what ran. Then there are 5 slideshows documenting what I saw. Please take the time to reflect, not forget and do something to help.
As soon as I heard Haiti had been rocked by a magnitude 7 earthquake, I wanted to be there. It was suddenly the center of the world, and I wanted to be in the middle of the action.
As I repeatedly asked my bosses to allow me to cover the story on the ground from Haiti, I started to question my own intentions. I wondered how much of my drive to be there, was really just drive, ambition and the desire to be playing with the big guys. I wondered if I was a vulture, taking advantage of people’s suffering to get a few more portfolio images.
After sitting on it for a few days and having a few conversations with my mom, I realized that I could apply that same question to most of the stories that I have covered with passion thus far in my photojournalism career. In the end I have the privilege of being a storyteller, and the responsibility to tell the story. My job is to document what happens, good and bad, or at least to be there and convey what I see, how I see it. If I get a few portfolio-quality images out of it, so be it. It’s not why I go. It’s not what makes me want nothing else other than to be there to tell the story. In the end, I decided I needed to stop stressing and just go do my job.
I left for Santo Domingo shortly after, had a two-day wait in Barahona, DR, and then began the journey over the border to Port-au-Prince. I was traveling with a driver, a fixer, a videographer and a writer.
Driving into Port-au-Prince was anticlimactic. I expected war zone scenery, devastation and quiet. Instead, there was bustle, traffic and markets everywhere I looked. I expected the smell of death to be overwhelming, I’d brought a scarf sprayed with perfume for that purpose, but the smell that confronted me as I rode into the city standing in the back of a flatbed truck was of diesel fumes. I quickly understood that my job was going to be different than that of the first-responder journalists. Going in two weeks after, the graphic, high intensity photos had been taken, the bodies had been cleared from the streets and life was continuing. I knew my job was going to be finding out how people were coping, how they were living, what they were feeling at this point, two weeks after.
On day one I photographed a missionary clinic in the hills outside of Port-au-Prince. Wards consisted of large rooms of 15 to 20 beds. Family members in charge of cleaning their loved ones and cooking for them crowded the narrow spaces between patients. Moaning was a continuous background sound, sometimes overlapped by chaplains reading psalms and praying. Newly admitted patients lay on thin mattresses placed on the floor in a corridor. A doctor sat on the floor next to one patient looking at his X-rays with the help of window light. As I prepared to walk into the clinic to shoot, a woman was leaving after recovering from femur surgery. I watched as she draped her arms over the shoulders of her brother and a friend, each held her waist to support her, and she slowly walked down a ramp to a waiting vehicle. Sweat dripped down her face and the pain was evident in her features. A small crowd gathered to watch, no one stepped in to carry her, but a few did lift her into the back of the truck once she reached it. As she prepared to leave what had been her home since the earthquake to stay with a friend, since her own home had been destroyed, a missionary reached into the truck to take her hand and say goodbye. That human touch and the look of affection and gratitude exchanged by the women moved me and set the tone for my own experience in Haiti.
Throughout the following four days I photographed in tent cities, churches and people’s homes. I visited a community built into the side of a mountain and slept on the roof of an orphanage under a full moon. I rode through downtown Port-au-Prince and allowed the extent of the destruction, the piles of rubble and even the smell of death to wash over me. I experienced the distribution of 1,000 family relief kits under the watchful eyes of U.S. marines in the Cite` Soleil neighborhood and found that the voices of those 1,000 people singing in their church, before receiving their kits, brought tears to my eyes.
What affected me most during my stay was the sense of a loss of dignity by many of Port-au-Prince’s residents. As humanity milled around them, women, old and young, washed on street corners. Men approached me in one of the tent cities to ask for a job as our group’s interpreter or guide, saying that the core of a man is to work and they could not find work or provide for their families. Children hung on to our truck and begged for water, even half empty bottles of water, when we stopped at traffic lights. Women fought over an insufficient amount of sanitary pads donated by an aid group to one of the tent cities. And an unidentifiable and decomposing body still lay in the middle of a main downtown street. The smell of death wasn’t the most impressive smell, but each tent city seemed to be soaked in urine and the smell of human waste. I felt like people were living on top of their own waste.
And finally, in some ways my trip has seemed to me to be a study in contrasts. I have had difficulty processing the idea of life going on around buildings that still trap bodies in their rubble. My team’s escape from the hot sun and the dust of downtown Port-au-Prince was a shaded restaurant owned by a Swiss woman where we could indulge in gelato. The restaurant was located a block from the squalor of a tent city. I heard stories of piles and piles of aid sitting on the tarmac at the airport, but saw little to no aid reaching the people. And spirituality and religion seemed to be ever-present themes in a place and people that had just lost everything to a natural disaster.
I spent my last night in Haiti at an orphanage run by a Mechanicsville couple. As we drove into the orphanage compound, 22 children greeted me politely. These children aren’t up for adoption, but are being raised there because their families cannot provide for them. The mission of the orphanage is to give them a safe and good place to grow, to educate them, and give them role models and opportunity, in the hope that they will be a new future for Haiti. As the children prepared to climb into their bunk beds placed in the front yard because they still fear sleeping inside, I was overwhelmed by the hugs
goodnight that I received by child after child.
The Tent City
All content by Eva Russo
All photos @ Richmond Times-Dispatch
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