Divine Horsemen

This is the title of a remarkable book by Maya Deren, a woman whose work I first saw as part of a film festival in London around 2001. It describes in intimate detail the rituals and culture of Voudoun. Since reading that book I have felt a slight tugging at the back of my mind to visit the region where this fascinating culture resides, but I never have. The closest I got was a beach resort on the east coast of Hispaniola, where I managed to drink plenty of rum and take a day trip to Santa Domingo with my camera, scratch a little of the surface of the history of the island, and see a few sites without getting anywhere near the world of Ghede and Erzulie.

I refer of course, to Haiti and to a holiday I took in the neighbouring Dominican Republic. The two countries share the Island of Hispaniola, which is an island of pivotal importance in the history of the Americas.

Last week, a massive earthquake brought the Haitian side of the island to the attention of the world. Haiti is by all accounts the poorest nation in the Caribbean and one of the poorest in the world. If you want to know why this is the case, the history is easy to find and clearly and obviously documented. Colonialism, slavery, economic and social repression by foreign powers, American Imperialism have - both directly and indirectly - all taken a huge toll. It is partly because of this that the effects of last week's earthquake have been so devastating. As one commentator noted: "It is hard to imagine what a magnitude 7 earthquake might do to a city that on any ordinary day already resembles a disaster area."

The photography coming out of the country in the aftermath of this terrible natural disaster is of course incredibly graphic. NPR has lots of photography and The New York Times has some good reporting on the Crisis, with plenty of photography and short interviews with photographers on the Lens Blog. As I write this, Michelle Obama is on my TV screen appealing for donations to the American Red Cross. She begins the message by stating that the images are heartbreaking. Not the news, mind, but the images. And indeed they are. Piles of bodies rotting in the sun, being loaded onto trucks with bulldozers. A tiny baby being mourned over by a father who left to go to work in the morning and didn't have a family to return to in the evening. Truly, heartbreaking is indeed the word to describe such events.

As always it's the photos of the kids that get me the most. This child photographed by Ruth Fremson tears me apart. I cannot honestly imagine how frightened and bewildered this kid must feel. It destroys me to think about it.

Of course, among all the good work being done by people helping and reporting from Haiti there are those who attract the label of disaster tourists. Whether this is justified or not is again a matter for debate that I won't enter into here, but compare here the following two photographs. The first one is by David Gilkey for NPR. The second shows the same situation but from a slightly different angle.

Photographers often get accused of preying on other people's pain. Of course it is true that sometimes we do. Sometimes we don't or can't help. Sometimes it's just not our job, but there are many many times where photographers do put down the camera and help. You rarely see it though, for the simple reason that (duh) the cameras have been put down and they are helping. However, here is a glimpse of CNN's Anderson Cooper in his role as a have-a-go-hero. Although I'm certain these photos are up on his web page in part to show what a great guy he is, it does serve to illustrate that journalists are not always vultures and often pitch in. When people talk about the press preying on people I always say one should be a human being first and a journalist second. You have a job to do, but that doesn't mean you should forget your humanity.

photograph by Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty/CNN

For a slightly different take on Haiti, check out the Cine Institute, an organisation in Haiti that provides media and film making education for Haitian youth. Thanks to Tiana Markova-Gold - a wonderful photographer who has many links with the country - for pointing me in the direction of this through her constant posting of related links on her facebook profile.

I am not going to make judgments about the effectiveness or speed of the response to the quake, nor on the accounting of aid agencies, as I believe these are important but secondary considerations, and besides, I'm thousands of miles away in a New Jersey suburb, so what the hell do I know about it.. I care less about how long the U.S. took to mobilise their military and governmental aid and more about what they do while they are actually there. As a few people have noted, and as the quotes seem to indicate, people are glad to see soldiers when they are there as helpers, rather than killers, andthough the military are trained to do both it is refreshing to see them take on the role of the former.

No doubt the misery and pain of the people of Haiti is far from over and as the crisis tapers from a shocking sensational event daily reported on to a long slow drawn out aftermath and as the journalists and aid workers return home the long task of working to rebuild shattered lives will begin and the attention of the world will drift on. I have no doubt that many people will continue to work for the good of the Haitian people after this tragedy, just as I am sure that others will forget it and move on. What I hope is that the rebuilding of this nation will be something that brings it out of the neglect, oppression and abuse of the past and will mark the start of a new and better chapter in Haiti's history, one where the people of Haiti take control of their own destiny, and the horsemen of the Haiti are truly divine, and not those of the apocalypse.


Tom White said...

Much has been said about the resilience of the Haitians, and that may well be the case. Certainly, this video of a young boy's rescue is amazing. Watch his reaction as he is pulled free and see how everyone responds to it. Incredible.


Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for this important thoughtful post.

Tiana;s photography is very special.