A new segment of this blog that I would like to introduce is to feature photographers whose work I admire greatly. For this debut post on the anniversary of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti one year ago on January 12th, I had asked my documentary photographer friend Matt Levitch to share a firsthand account of his experience in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake.
1. Why were you compelled to go to Haiti?
I have long been fascinated by Haiti, with its slave and revolutionary history and African cultural roots, and especially by the mysterious and greatly misunderstood religion Vodou. When I first became interested in photography while studying journalism in graduate school, I discovered Magnum Photos and stumbled upon Bruce Gilden’s work from Haiti in the 1980′s. I was captivated by the mysticism and intensity of Vodou, and a dream was born. In the summer of 2009, I finally traveled to Haiti, setting out to photograph a series of pilgrimages that take place each year.
Through a friend of a friend, I arranged to stay with local Haitians in a typical Port-au-Prince neighborhood and home. To make a long story short, I became close with these Haitian friends – John, Litana, and Sabine – who showed such hospitality and looked out for my safety. I also fell in love with Haiti and its proud, passionate, and resilient people and vibrant culture. Photographing Vodou, the purpose of my trip, was an extraordinary experience and became a passion and focus of my documentary work. Fast forward to several months after returning from this initial trip. I turned on the television on the afternoon of January 12, 2010 to hear CNN reporting that a strong earthquake had just struck Haiti near Port-au-Prince. Early first-hand accounts from survivors told of immense devastation. My heart sank, as I knew from my travels that Port-au-Prince was perhaps one of the worst cities in the world for such a disaster to strike. Overcrowding, shoddy building construction, horrendous infrastructure, rugged terrain, and a dysfunctional government with no resources set the stage for a disaster of incomprehensible magnitude.
My mind began to race. What of my friends I’d made there? Had they survived? The photographer and journalist in me also realized this was likely a historic event. My immediate thought was that I wanted to be there, but I also realized the logistics of getting there and working in that environment independently would be very challenging, particularly not speaking or understanding the language. I called my friend Zeke Petrie in Ohio, who had arranged for my earlier home stay with John, Litana, and Sabine – his adopted family – and asked if he’d heard anything about them. He had been unable to contact them and was worried. I then mentioned my desire to be there, and he basically said: “I’m ready to go if you are.” And that was that. We researched the logistics of getting into Port-au-Prince at the time, met in the Dominican Republic three days later, and from there managed to charter a Cessna into Port-au-Prince.
2. When did you go and how long did you stay? Amidst all the chaos, what options did you have for your own accommodations, food, water, etc.
The initial earthquake struck late in the afternoon of Tuesday, January 12th, and we arrived on the morning of Saturday, January 16th. My friend Zeke is American but has been traveling back and forth to Haiti for nearly 20 years and knows the country inside and out. He speaks native Kreyòl and has a lot of contacts in Port-au-Prince, so that was a huge factor in working out logistics. Within minutes of landing, Zeke found someone he knew outside the airport to drive us. We immediately learned that all of his adopted family and also his Haitian wife’s immediate family were alive and well, which was great news. From that point, I became focused entirely on photographing, and Zeke used his language skills and extensive local knowledge and contacts to help people he knew and others he met along the way. I was in Haiti for eight days, but Zeke ended up staying down there for a couple months, and recently relocated to Port-au-Prince.
Heading down, I had no idea what to expect. I packed a tent, enough dry food to sustain us for a couple of weeks, and lots of medical supplies. Many hotels in Port-au-Prince, which were few and far between to begin with, were destroyed or badly damaged in the earthquake. Once we arrived, we discovered that those remaining were rapidly filling with journalists and aid workers. We eventually found a hotel called Habitation HATT that had suffered some damage, but it was still running and soon to become the base of operations for NBC News. The owner said we could have rooms for a night or two before NBC’s crew arrived, and then camp outside by the swimming pool, so that’s what we did. The very first night Zeke, John, Litana, Sabine, and I were asleep in two rooms when a strong aftershock jarred us awake around two or three o’clock in the morning. I’m generally a heavy sleeper, but I was up and out of bed and standing in the hotel courtyard within seconds. The seismic waves rippling through the earth were reminiscent of rough waves rocking a small boat. An incredibly unsettling feeling. After that night, we were all more than happy to sleep outside by the pool, especially John and the girls, who were on the third floor of a house that was severely damaged when the initial earthquake struck. Miraculously, they survived with only minor cuts and bruises.
Access to drinking water was my absolute biggest concern about working in Port-au-Prince, but it turned out not to be much of an issue. There was food and water available – for those with money. Of course, most Haitians themselves have little to begin with, and much of that was buried in the rubble. I didn’t drink or eat much when I was out shooting during the day, giving most of what I took out with me away to Haitians, because there was plenty of water and enough food to get by back at the hotel. The owner of the charter flight service who got us into and out of Port-au-Prince, a great guy named Michael Lewis-Keister, was flying journalists and aid workers in and out via the Dominican Republic almost daily, and he donated and brought in a lot of supplies such as water, dry food, medical supplies, and toiletries. Back at the hotel, although the staff had to ration food at times, there was usually something available every day. The owner and staff did an incredible job of keeping things together under very trying circumstances.
3. Why is documenting disasters important?
Imagery of a humanitarian crisis like Haiti’s earthquake gives viewers a direct window into important events. The written word has its own special power to inform and tell a story, but a powerful image has an immediate and almost visceral impact that communicates universal human emotion and thereby elicits empathy in a way that I believe nothing else can. It has a way of making a story more immediate and real. Not only do documentary photography and photojournalism serve as vital means of communicating stories, they can also motivate people to help and force governments or other institutions to take action. There was an incredible amount of coverage of the earthquake in Haiti, and I believe the images that came out of the crisis played a major role in the enormous global response. Individuals, non-profit groups, corporations, and governments around the world responded generously with donations of money, food, clothing, and supplies that were in desperate need.
4. Seeing the aftermath of the devastation in person must have been overwhelming. Did you struggle with being able to continue documenting? How were you able to set aside your emotions?
The horror of death, suffering, and destruction in Haiti after the earthquake is difficult to put into words. It was a completely surreal and apocalyptic scene, and mind-boggling in scale. I spent part of the trip working and pooling resources with Jan Dago and James Oatway, veteran photojournalists from international newspapers in Denmark and South Africa. Both have photographed other natural disasters, including the 2005 Indonesian tsunami, as well as various conflicts and humanitarian crises, and they remarked that the earthquake in Haiti was the worst situation they had seen in their careers.
I tried as best as possible to concentrate of telling the story unfolding before me, and for the most part was able to dissociate myself emotionally. That’s not always possible, though, and you have to allow yourself to be human. Working in this sort of environment is incredibly challenging and draining, and it’s certainly not a vocation for most people. As strange as it might sound, I became desensitized to the sight of so many dead bodies, though never to the smell. Personally, the hardest part of documenting a tragedy like this is witnessing and photographing scenes of intense emotion related to survivors’ loss of loved ones, such as funerals in the national cemetery where bodies were being dumped en masse, or another incident I’ll share in a moment. In these situations, you’re forced to engage a person experiencing unimaginable anguish, and to do so respectfully while still capturing a sensitive and compelling image is a balancing act. Also, seeing so many people suffering from horrific injuries and in such obvious pain is a totally helpless feeling.
By far the most heart-breaking incident for me was the family reaction to the tragic death of a 15-year-old girl named Fabienne. In the days after the initial tremor, desperation in downtown Port-au-Prince turned anarchic with looting and violence. On this one particularly tense day, thousands of people were scavenging anything they could find. Many scaled the roof of a building, which had collapsed down onto a street, to access an adjacent store that seemed to hold a never-ending supply of goods. I was on top of the roof photographing with my back to that street when I heard the crack of gunfire from somewhere down below. I didn’t think much of it, because this had become so commonplace. Seconds later, I turned around to see a girl lying face down about 20 feet behind me on a steep section of the collapsed roof. Underneath her were framed paintings, the glass shattered from the impact of her fall. I walked over to see if she was okay. She wasn’t moving or breathing, and blood began trickling from her head and streaming down the roof. Someone checked her pulse and indicated that she was dead. At this point, I believed she had fallen and hit her head, thinking to myself what an unbelievable way to die after surviving a catastrophic earthquake. Then I overheard a couple other photographers on the scene discussing the gunshot fired by a police officer in the street, and I realized he’d shot her in the head.
Someone tracked down her family, who lived less than a mile away, and soon her father and other relatives arrived to retrieve her body. They were despondent. The father hoisted Fabienne’s body over his shoulder and carried her off the roof and back toward the family’s house, crying and screaming in anger about the Haitian police and government. Some suggested the policeman targeted her intentionally and claimed the officer in question was a known killer. At best, he fired a reckless warning shot aimed with a very low trajectory. As the family carried her lifeless body through the streets back toward their home, they eventually placed her in a rickety wooden crate. There were so many photographers taking pictures at this point that I began questioning if we were exploitive, but the family was urging us to follow. They wanted the world to know what had happened. At the family’s home, the mother was waiting. She broke down in an unforgettably gut-wrenching display of anguish. In a quest to secure these framed paintings of flowers, small tokens of beauty amidst a scene of incomprehensible horror and despair, her 15-year-old daughter, Fabienne, had been shot dead. Just hours earlier, I had watched a teenage boy take his last breaths after being stabbed in a fight over a box of toothbrushes in the middle of the street. That was an emotionally draining day.
5. What was your sense of the people? What did you see in them?
People’s emotional states covered the spectrum. There was of course incredible grief and desperation, great feelings of uncertainty of what the future would bring, and a lot of anger at the fecklessness of the Haitian government. Amidst all of this, though, what struck me most was a strong sense of stoicism in many individuals that I met. People who had lost entire families and their homes seemed resigned to it all and to be already moving forward as best they could. I would hear some of their stories and marvel at how they were functioning. I imagine some were simply in a state of shock from what they’d experienced, but I think it’s also a reflection of the national psyche. It’s a nation born from rebellion against the most horrific slavery, and instead of celebrating Haiti’s independence, European powers and the US sabotaged it from the beginning and have contributed heavily to its ongoing instability. The Haitian people today are accustomed to living with chronic poverty and lack of opportunity, rampant crime, a deeply ineffective and corrupt government, political violence and coup d’états, hurricanes, flooding, and mudslides. It’s seemingly endless, and nothing seems to surprise or faze them anymore.
At the same time, Haitians are a strong and proud people, and they have a remarkable resilience and resourcefulness about them. After the earthquake, all around the city hundreds of thousands of people, if not more, constructed shelters with whatever they could find – sticks and scraps of wood, bed sheets, plastic sheeting – and they formed into communities with leaders and groups assigned to carry out specific tasks. For the most part in these tent cities, people were looking out for one another. That’s not to say there weren’t problems. Port-au-Prince has issues with violent crime and gangs, and many dangerous criminals escaped from the main prison. I saw a number of bodies of people who had clearly been murdered. From my understanding, some were criminals, including rapists and child traffickers, who became victims of mob justice as the government provided virtually no security. But, for the most part people were overwhelmingly peaceful and cooperative.
6. Any moment(s) that touched you while you were there?
The situation was still very much desperate and chaotic while I was there, and most of what I saw reflected that, but there were occasional joyous and uplifting moments. There was an inspirational national prayer gathering in which thousands of people came together downtown in a park near the collapsed presidential palace. At night, beautiful singing would sometimes ring out from the darkness. I marveled at the ability of children to adapt to extreme circumstances and still find it within themselves to be children, laughing and playing. Throughout the tent cities, kids fashioned homemade kites from scraps of wood and plastic and flew them in the late afternoon breezes, for me a touching display of innocence and resilience in the face of overwhelming tragedy.
7. Last thoughts.
I returned to Haiti this past summer to continue photographing Vodou pilgrimages, and it was disheartening to see so many people still living in tents and so little rubble cleared away. The devastation was of such massive scale, and the country just doesn’t have the resources to deal with it. I think the reality is that it will take a long time for Port-au-Prince to get back to even its pre-earthquake state, which was itself a deeply troubled existence. Most people I talked to believed that little has been done to improve the situation and that the recovery effort has been ineffective and disorganized. While there are still many aid groups and volunteers working tirelessly to help, I saw no evidence of a concerted effort to clean up and rebuild. It’s remarkable to see what people are capable of adapting to and living with – not that they have much choice but to do so. Most Haitians I’ve met say they would leave the country if they could. During my last trip, I sensed widespread apprehension about the nation’s future, exacerbated by an unstable political situation with upcoming elections. Those fears proved to be well founded as the recent election process and results have been widely deemed fraudulent by Haitians and also by independent outside observers with expertise in these matters. So, the country is in limbo now in that regard, and there has been little follow-through of the money pledged to rebuild Haiti. I haven’t been since the cholera outbreak, but it’s yet another setback and compounding already unfathomable misery.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Matt Levitch is a Los Angeles-based documentary photographer. He was born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, NC, and studied biology at the University of North Carolina, journalism at the University of Florida, and photography at the Hallmark Institute in Western Massachusetts. His recent work has focused on religious pilgrimages and man’s spiritual connection to nature, with projects taking him to Haiti, Venezuela, and India.
All images © Matt Levitch