Thinking Images v.8: Haiti’s eternal present

January 13, 2011 · by David Campbell · photography, politics, Thinking Images

Thinking Images - an occasional series on some of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

Haiti e1323551306201 Thinking Images v.8: Haiti’s eternal present

Caption: Orich Florestal (left), 24 and Rosemond Altidon, 22, stand on the edge of their partially destroyed apartment of Port-au-Prince January 9, 2011. Photo: Allison Shelley/Reuters.

One year ago this week a massive earthquake struck Haiti killing 230,000 people. Media coverage of the disaster was both extensive and intensive. One year on, the international media has been running stories marking the anniversary. This week we have seen (amongst many others) visual compilations from media outlets like The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, Time, and from INGOs like UNICEF, not to mention Christian Aid’s sponsorship of Wolfgang Tillman’s unremarkable snaps.

Thinking about these journalistic memorials, and looking back at the original coverage, what are some of the on-going issues relevant to the photographic coverage of disasters? This post will be far from either a comprehensive account of all the concerns or a comprehensive review of all the relevant pictures, but will raise what I think is the most important question – how can visual storytellers report context?

In addition to the legions of print and broadcast journalists who flew into Port-au-Prince in January 2010, more than 80 photographers arrived to cover the aftermath. As the Reuters photographer Jorge Silva observed, the situation they found was overwhelming and overpowering. By and large the images they produced were individually powerful records of destruction and suffering.

The photographer Daniel Morel – a resident of Port au Prince who contributes to Corbis – produced what became the iconic image of a dust-covered survivor being pulled from the wreckage. Morel (later embroiled in a legal fight over the misuse of his image by AFP and others) was critical of the motives of many who came to cover the crisis:

Since the earthquake, I’m documenting what happened for the next generation. I’m not taking photos for a contest or for a prize. I’m taking pictures for history. I want the next generation to see more. I want the next generation to feel it — what happened.

CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper was one of those Morel derided for being outside the story and playing with the people, and BagNewsNotes provided a compelling shot-by-shot critique of a Cooper report. But Cooper was just one of the reporters characterising post-earthquake Haiti as a ‘lawless jungle‘ populated either by pathetic individuals who could do nothing but wait for external assistance or by ‘savages’ taking advantage of anarchy. Inevitably, there were media critiques about the prevalence of “pornographic” pictures, the misleading use of captions to direct meaning (as in the description of survival tactics as “looting“), and predictable public lamentations from newspaper editors about the difficulties of using graphic images (see the New York Times public editor, the Washington Post public editor, and this overview of the issue. For my take on the presentation of death in the media, see the essay “Horrific Blindness” here).

However, the major problem of this early coverage was that it proceeded from a false premise. The earthquake in Haiti was not a “natural disaster.” Of course it was triggered by an event in nature, but the consequences of that event were a result of economic, social and political factors. When an earthquake of the same magnitude struck California in 1989, the death toll was 63 not a quarter of a million. It was social infrastructure and economic well-being that produced such radically different outcomes. Seismologists say buildings not earthquakes kill people. But how does one picture that when a population has been decimated?

To be sure, in situations like the Haiti earthquake we need photographers recording the immediate aftermath. In terms of the immediate response, I wouldn’t’ disagree with the thrust of Jorge Silva’s reflection:

Many people ask if journalists help in disasters. I don’t think we help directly. Our job is to trigger the response from institutions that do. This is what motivates us to come to these places, to point the eyes of the world toward people who are suffering and clamoring for help. We have to sensitize people to the situation through our pictures.

But does it take 80 international photographers producing noticeably similar images to do this? Michael David Murphy identified numerous redundant images coming out of Haiti, and suggested that one way to avoid this in future would be to create a pool system:

Why don’t media outlets join forces to divide and conquer the enormity of a situation like Haiti’s? Media outlets could assign individual photographers to follow one aspect of the Haiti story, and the story could be published by all participating outlets.

The multiple images of Fabienne Cherisma, a young woman shot by police, were a poignant conjunction of the issues of redundancy and death. In what was an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism, Pete Brook spoke to many of the 15 photographers who made pictures of Fabienne and analysed the issue in a series of important posts. (See also the open-i discussion of this, and for the photographers’ response to the issue of how many covered the disaster, see “Too many angles on suffering?“).

Image redundancy can be a problem, but not one that should lead to a structured pool system. We need multiple perspectives of the same event so that we can establish a “concordance of evidence” and avoid an individual photographer being falsely subjected to charges of manipulation. However, in a situation like Haiti, given the numbers of photographers there, surely we can have multiple perspectives and different stories that probe the context?

The piece that still stands out from the original coverage of the earthquake is Peter van Agtmael’s “Convoy to Nowhere” which reported on the frustrating passage of an aid shipment. Its effectiveness comes from having identified a larger issue beyond immediate suffering, produced a series of pictures, and provided captions that helped establish a narrative into which those pictures are embedded.

Haiti PvA Convoy e1323551433792 Thinking Images v.8: Haiti’s eternal present

Photo: Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos for The Wall Street Journal

The bulk of daily photo/journalism exists in – and produces – an “eternal present” where things that are immediate, here and now, drive the images and stories. Once the initial moment has passed, what we need are stories that move beyond frozen time to investigate the history, context, and implications of what we have witnessed.

One year on from the earthquake, how to the reviews stack up in this regard? There have been some excellent features that tackle the issue of time and context head on. NPR’s David Gilkey revisited some key locations and produced some ‘before and after’ dyptichs, The New York Times has an interactive using satellite images of Port au Prince to show the environs before the quake, immediately after and now, and BagNewsNotes marked the anniversary with two Mario Tama photos from the same location a year apart.

Most of the retrospectives paint a picture of a country still struggling with the aftermath of the earthquake. In large part that is because Haiti is still struggling. Only 5% of the rubble has been removed. Only 15% of houses have been rebuilt. Countries that promised large sums of aid are yet to deliver. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) has been criticized for failures in governance, and the thousands of NGOs have been slated for lack of coordination. All this means 810,000 Haitians currently remain in temporary camps, and three quarters of them are likely to be still there at year’s end.

If there is one visual form that should be able to address this challenge of detailing context and contesting the ‘eternal present’ it should be multimedia (by which I mean photographers using audio and video in addition to their still images to tell stories).  However, I have not found many examples to review (if you have links do pass them on). Khalid Mohtaseb’s short film started a vigorous debate about “cinematic journalism”. Although Mohtaseb said he wanted to tell a different story it was in effect a technical exercise rather than a journalistic account. Benjamin Lowy has just released a short film with images from early 2010, but it lacks any sense of a narrative. The best collection I have seen is AlertNet’s 12 portraits of people affected by the disaster.

The international community managed the initial emergency response to Haiti with sufficient effectiveness to get aid to millions. Likewise, photojournalism managed to offer its form of the emergency response, ample documentation of the suffering and devastation. What the international community has not done is carry through on its promises of reconstruction and redevelopment. And what photojournalism has for the most part not done is turn its attention directly to that failure and the wider context. Both are relatively good at responding to crises, and less good at producing long-term commitments and perspectives.

After the earthquake Magnum Photos established an internal fund to support in-depth coverage of Haiti for the next twelve months. It is not clear if this resulted in any new work (though I will be asking them). Has anyone else produced a visual story that dismantles the sense of Haiti’s eternal present and addresses the context of its current situation?

4 Responses to “Thinking Images v.8: Haiti’s eternal present”

  1. Interesting and useful post, thanks David. Your point about quakes being economic, social and political issues is well made. In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 media attention soon turned to the parents protests over why so many buildings had collapsed (and quickly latched on to the silencing of those who protested – though few followed through on the intimidation of lawyers that offered support to the familes). I wonder how much attention was given to this in the coverage of Haiti? Nepal, where I sit, lives in the shadow of the next big quake (this week is the anniversary of the last big quake to hit Kathmandu in 1934). Everyone knows than when it comes it may well level a great deal of Kathmandu due to poor building design and construction. Disaster preparedness is lacking. But what will the coverage focus on? What stories will be conveyed to the world? And what will they tell us about Nepal and the experience of those Nepalese who live through such a tragedy? The back story to such an event is here now, in the infrastructure and poor governance, and in the fears (or lack of) amongst those who live here. As in Haiti and Sichuan there will be lots of rubble to photograph, with joyful and tragic stories of survival and death. Yet I suspect that Nepal will be pictured as another poor country where such disaster is expected and unpreventable. It will need coverage like ‘Convoy to Nowhere’ and AlertNet’s 12 portraits to give us more than Biblical scenes. It strikes me that as with most socially aware visual media what is often lacking in such coverage is the complexity, both socially and individually, and an eye that stays focussed long enough to mark change. It may be local photographers who in the end have the insight, interest and patience to seek out such stories.

  2. Thank you for thinking critically about these issues. Tillman’s snaps are def unremarkable, and proof that a name gets one further than talent much of the time.

    The idea of agencies pulling together and sharing in how something is covered is an excellent idea. I suppose the problem is the infighting that would ensue, as one agency wants to dictate the more dramatic coverage.

    “Likewise, photojournalism managed to offer its form of the emergency response, ample documentation of the suffering and devastation. What the international community has not done is carry through on its promises of reconstruction and redevelopment. And what photojournalism has for the most part not done is turn its attention directly to that failure and the wider context. Both are relatively good at responding to crises, and less good at producing long-term commitments and perspectives.”

    Great point, and this is what concerns me. OK, we see disaster. Now what?

    • Thanks for the comment Linka. Photographs and seeing is just the beginning of the process; they have to enable a network of action. That is not the responsibility of image makers alone of course, but they are part of a wider network.

  1. [...] Might this singular term obscure more than it reveals? # With last week’s the anniversary of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake I recalled a BBC Radio 4 segment that asked if the news photographs of the disaster were too [...]

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