Category Archives: Photography

The old military airfield – pictures

Some pictures taken during a registration drive at the old military airfield in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Same pattern as last time – we gave out flyers, sent in the sound trucks to inform and entertain, created a bit of a party – and then the registration began.

I love some of these photos. It is amazing how high-spirited Haitians remain, especially if you offer some hope. Music can be enormously powerful in these situations.

After I create a set like this, I like to make a quick iphoto slide show, and add on a nice nostalgic tune – in this case to Fool on the Hill by the Beatles.

It’s quite an experience – you see and do all these overwhelming things during a day, but it goes by so fast you don’t really register them until later. A relaxed photo viewing session, set to music, puts everything into focus, the historic nature of these events. This is really significant stuff. I sincerely hope the world doesn’t walk away this time.

APOLOGIES FOR BROKEN PHOTO LINKS – the UPDATED FULL FLICKR SET IS HERE

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Scenes and portraits in the streets and settlements of Port-au-Prince

A simple photo post today.

Taking pictures in the camps of Port-au-Prince is an exceptional experience.

There are almost 350 spontaneous settlements here, ranging in size from a couple of dozen to several thousand people.

We have been visiting these sites, ensuring they have sufficient infrastructure, water, medical support. We are now going to start a major effort to remove rubble, in order to clear the areas where the people come from, giving them a chance to get back to their home areas and rebuild. A gargantuan task, a truly gargantuan task.

The Haitian people are extraordinary. If you take the time to chat, be polite, listen to their stories, they are delighted to pose for pictures, and take great joy in looking at them, giggling. I have come to believe that in some ways, taking a photo, and sharing it, offers an opportunity for people to act with dignity, feel significant, even in the most undignified of surroundings.

Yesterday, we took Kris Allen – last year’s American Idol winner – on a tour of one of these sites, in Place de la Paix. It is a breathtaking scene, a massive labyrinth of temporary shelters, crammed together but well organised, supplied with water, latrines, and a population of deeply welcoming people, delighted to chat about our respective philosophies, the future of Haiti, the international system, footballers, and rock stars.

Out of nowhere a kid came up and started rapping with Kris Allen, playing guitar on a condom. Hilarity ensued. Amazing scene. I hope the US showbiz industry isn’t too nervous to show it.

You can see the whole Flickr set here, and another set here.

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Scenes of an apocalypse; more distributions; touring a slum

Drive to the distribution point at Eglise Bolosse – an extraordinary trip through often apocalyptic scenes; an ad hoc tent camp under the ruins of a former gas station…

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…hillside houses crushed; overflowing gutters filled with rubble and plastic and rubbish; a makeshift infirmary under blue plastic awnings, a child with a swollen foot, welts and flies, who squeals with delight when I snap pics and show him the results.

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We are handing out tarpaulins, water and jerrycans to a thousand destitute families; an old woman comes to me and asks “di ri, di ri”. I realise she wants rice. “Desolee; on n’a pas du riz ici.” She walks off, despondent.

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A small scuffle later on as some men sneak round the back and try to steal boxes, but overall an amazingly disciplined affair, hundreds of women patiently in line waiting their turn, happy some help has arrived.

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We continue to explain the shelter strategy – why starting the basis of a transitional shelter is better in the medium term than tents – but it can be difficult to explain.

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So many demands – why haven’t we fixed everything yet? But even in the insta-twitter age, some things simply take time, and in a deeply poor country, clogged by traffic jams, where the government and international aid community were themselves devasted, with only a small airport, port, and a bad overland road to the Dominican Republic, there are absolute limits to what even the most powerful nations on earth can do.

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We have seen those limits plainly enough in domestic tragedies, in rich countries with working systems, let alone here. We are all working very hard to get a difficult job done.

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A guide takes me through a hillside slum. Some of it still stands, some of it has been destroyed. I will post video tomorrow. Spirits still seem OK. Simple kites are flying. Local markets are working – a woman carries a panful of courgettes on her head. Re-establishing basic social systems. Coping.

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Helping Haiti, in photos; a simple way we can all keep the issue alive

I plan to start posting many more photos of what is going on here – the sights we encounter when we distribute items, help organize temporary settlements, create shelter and so on. They can all be found at my flickr photoset called Working for Haiti.

I’ll pick a few every couple of days and post them. I will also be regularly posting videos on my youtube channel markyturner. My first video, of a distribution in all its complexity, is here.

If you like any of this media, I would strongly encourage you to repost, share on facebook and other social media – whatever you can. (All photos are taken by me, except where explicitly stated otherwise; I have permission to disseminate them all).

The international press is going home, day by day. That leaves people like us to keep the message alive. With the decline of journalism, we all assume a responsibility.

Everyone with a computer is a media person these days. Let’s do what we can to keep Haiti present in the world’s conscience.

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(this photo take by Jean-Philippe Chauzy)

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Time in Miami exile

I picked up a copy of Einstein’s Dreams, a whimsical book which offers glimpses into worlds with different forms of time – each as real as the next.

We have encountered multiple versions of time here in Miami also: the thrilled rush of a new holiday, the lazy time of full days with long breakfasts, the constricting time that accompanies a holiday’s end and imminent return…

… and then the thunder of the earthquake, profoundly personal yet from afar, time flying by at an extraordinary pace, all rush and noise, phone-calls and fast conversations, yet concurrently suspended, our lives in limbo, uncertain.

That time has lasted a while, but is ceding to another form of nervous time, where minutes tick by slowly, yet driving us closer to an uncomfortable new reality. Miami’s weather has been unusually unsettled. Now cold, now hot; now dry, wet, or windy. These fluctuations have contributed to our sense of time at any one moment.

Our time now is spent learning the full extent of what has happened to our community, asking questions inappropriate in those first days, picking up our pieces, re-establishing our children, choosing where to live. All over again.

It looks possible I will head to Haiti for a while, and Anna to New York. Nothing final yet. I would like to do this; it gives me purpose. Anna will try to find her way forward at headquarters.

But our life remains shrouded in uncertainty. What are we going to do with our family in the long-term? Is there any way of recovering our house, our life in Haiti?

In this version of time, events are happening out of our control; we consider their merits in hindsight, not advance. I am sad to be apart from the children; I am glad to catch a wave heading somewhere out of nowhere.

I have been in a suspension for a little while. Most of my life, career, was a charge towards something – becoming a journalist, traveling the world, telling stories; then a switch of style, an exploration of new disciplines, choosing sides, kids, fatherhood.

But the past year has been one of contemplation, transition. A new direction resolving slowly. We were finally settling into a new place, re-establishing a household in a community.

Now I can feel time speeding up again, the clacking of the track gathering pace and intensity; Miami blurring around the edges. A new journey. I have little idea where it leads.

Night Demons

There is a powerful scene in the Tracy Kidder book about Paul Farmer, where the doctor and his chronicler are caught deep in rural Haiti late at night. A friend is sent to fetch a car. The duo start walking down the dark road alongside Ti Jean, a Haitian colleague.

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Roosters crow in the night. Now and then a dog barks. Then we hear a strange sound coming towards us, like something scraping the road. ‘What is it?’ Farmer asks Ti Jean.

Ti Jean says, ‘Job pa-l.’ The literal translation is: ‘Its own job.’ He means, ‘Don’t ask.’ In a moment, the shapes of a pair of men appear, dragging some lumber down the road towards Casse. A few minutes later we hear a squeaking sound approaching. Farmer asks Ti Jean what it is and Ti Jean answers more emphatically. ‘Zafe bounda-l!’ Which means, ‘It’s own ass!’ He’s telling Farmer to shut up and mind his own business. A moment later the shape of a person on a squeaky old bicycle passes in the starlight.

This continues. Another person passes, and Farmer says, ‘Bonsoir,’ and Ti Jean shushes him, then issues these instructions: If someone passes you at night and doesn’t speak, you too must remain silent, but if the person asks who you are, you must say, ‘I am who you are,’ and if the person asks what you do, you must say, ‘I do what you do.’

What’s the danger? Farmer asks.

Ti Jean says you might be talking to a demon who will steal your spirit. Then you’ll wake up in the morning with diarrhea and vomiting, and the doctor will say you have typhoid or malaria, but in fact the problem will be more complex. ‘You should take the medicines,’ says Ti Jean. ‘But then you should also go to a Voodoo priest.’

I sympathise. My demons come at night also.

I lie in bed and they appear, taunting me with things undone, ambitions unrealised, with decisions poorly made, conversations badly handled.

I did not need to come to Haiti for these demons. They were there in Brooklyn also. But they traveled with me and have taken on local powers.

Now they whisper to me about potential break-ins, about doors unlocked. About how to make my way on this troubled island.

I get up in the dead of night after one demon convinces me to move my MacBook from the study to the bedroom, which feels safer, behind a barred gate.

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I read once that some Haitian superstitions could be traced to medieval Normandy. The colonists also imported their demons, it seems. They intermingled with those of other cultures, taking on new forms, new habits.

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I pad around the house at 4 am. Petionville glistens below. Noise drifts up the hill. The occasional honking car. Snatches of music. The bustle of a city on partial power, of people still working.

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But rural Haiti is never far off. I can see it in the shadowed hills which frame the city. The cock crows at night here too, dreaming of a dawn far off. Insects sing loudly, chirping their dominance over people; a light breeze hushes the blossoms.

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I take some photos. Somewhere our night guards are prowling, or sleeping. A demon whispers that they may shoot me by accident, so I turn on some lights. I am here! We have electricity! The demons scuttle into corners.

The camera gives some control, some purpose. I consider what I might write in my blog the next day. Intention offers solace, and the demons retreat further.

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I head back to bed. The demons return; teasing me with yearning dreams, reintroducing me to old friends, colleagues, places, even as Anna sleeps beside me and the children breathe peacefully in the adjoining room. I lie with eyes open, the faint light of the city streaming through the window, thinking of the next day.

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And yet, ultimately, I remember I am comfortable here. My concerns are minor. How much more powerful these demons might be were I born Haitian, concerned about my next meal, my children’s health.

So I empathise with Haiti’s night demons. They are very real.

Kidder continues:

We stroll on. Farmer says that Ti Jean’s discourse has reminded him of his first ardent explorations of Haiti and the dozens of Voodoo ceremonies he attended. Contrary to almost everything he’s read about their luridness, he found them long and boring. ‘The majority were held because someone was sick.’ He asks Ti Jean his opinion. Are half of the Voodoo ceremonies attempts to drive away illness?

‘Three-quarters,’ says Ti Jean.

‘Isn’t it amazing,’ Farmer says to me, ‘that this simple fact has eluded all the many commentaries on Voodoo?’

Sergio in Port-au-Prince, and the collapse of international journalism

Just finished Samantha Power’s extraordinary book on Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special rep who died in the August 2003 bombing of the United Nations in Baghdad. It was magnificent.

As someone who spent several years writing about the UN in all its flawed crucial complexity, I was prepared to hate this book – but instead found myself blown away by its portrayal of the agonising tension between pragmatism and principle, through the powerfully simple tale of ‘one man’s fight to save the world’.

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As Terry George, the director of Hotel Rwanda, told Ms Power, the narrative drive comes from the most archetypal of plots: “Once upon a time there was a kingdom. And in that kingdom, there was a good, flawed knight named Sergio. He had a sword, and he had a shield…”

The story of three decades at the highest peaks of the UN, we learn of a man torn between the desire to promote humanitarian principles, save lives and offer dignity, and the grimy reality of dealing with powerful governments, war criminals and shifting public opinion. He is dragged in both directions during his career, sometimes going too far one way, sometimes the other. Along the way he destroyed, then rebuilt, his personal life.

It is a constant struggle, and one which – by its essential nature – the UN will always face. The United Nations is both a club of governments, and an organization committed to improve humanity’s lot. These two objectives often stand in stark opposition. To save the world, one sometimes has to make grim compromises. How much compromise is the question. Compromise too much, and you may find the world you saved to be a deeply unpleasant place.

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Haiti is no different.

The UN is here to staunch violence, and provide sufficient stability – and guidance – to enable Haitians to rebuild their fragile island. Peacekeepers provide breathing room. But it is up to Haitians to breathe.

In the broad scheme of things, it is doing a credible job. A full-fledged rebellion (in 2004), and the stranglehold of Haiti’s marauding gangs, have been ended. Institutions are, to a degree, being strengthened. And the UN is on hand to help mitigate the worst of nature’s calamities – such as last year’s explosive hurricane season.

At the same time, however, the current president is widely seen as consolidating his powers and playing fast and loose with a flawed electoral process ahead of polls next year. (The radio is filled with debate about a possible ‘electoral coup d’etat’, the kidnapping of Haitian democracy). The UN itself may be seen as a distorting influence on Haiti’s economy, creating a drift towards servicing the aid industry rather than rebuilding the country’s own capacity.

As long as it is here, the UN also serves as a distracting target for popular discontent; easy to blame where the root causes are far more structural.

The decisions it faces on a daily basis are no less complex than those faced by Sergio. How far should it support Haiti’s pre-election process, if it is seen to be unfair? Intervene too much, and the ultimate point of the UN’s presence – for Haitians to take peaceful control of their own destiny – is compromised.

With the world’s great powers otherwise engaged, and given their limited appetite for more conflict, the UN is also on something of a limb; it needs to cooperate with the government of the day. At the same time, if it is seen to go too far in the government’s direction, it runs the risk of losing popular legitimacy.

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These are the questions Mr de Mello faced every day.

Which brings me to my thought. The Samantha Power book did an extraordinary job of presenting the trials of political decision-making in a real time format, and yet cannot escape from the fact it was written with hindsight. Interviews were conducted after the event… with the clarity of knowledge that says ‘these were the pertinent facts’.

The fog of the present, however, does not allow such luxuries. How is one to know if the current uptick in Haitian violence is a pre-Christmas spree, or something more worrying. How can one tell if the exclusion of Lavalas, the party of exiled ex-president Betrand Aristide, is a major challenge to stability, or merely a reflection of its has-been status? These are questions that often cannot be answered until it’s too late.

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Telling that story is important work.

The decisions made here in Haiti are profoundly relevant to the new world order under construction. The role of the UN. Of peacekeepers from developing countries. Of the aid industry. Missionaries. International investors.

But who is charting this? Who is recording these challenges in an accessible journalistic manner, in a way that a broad international audience might understand?

The answer is: almost no-one.

The AP has a reporter here full time, and he is doing a great job. But that’s basically it. Major international media occasionally send a correspondent for a day or two, but with revenues falling, bureaus closing, and the model of independent journalism in wholesale collapse, it is very limited.

The Washington Post, for example, has one correspondent for all of Latin America. One.

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Who will take these journalists’ place? On one level, local reporters will, of course. Through the internet they have the power to reach out far wider than ever before. But resources are limited, and they will often have a personal axe to grind. The dispassionate views of outsiders remains invaluable.

Can the UN itself fill the gap? Not really. The UN – as any major organisation – does marketing, not reporting. It cannot criticise itself in public.

NGOs? To an extent. NGOs increasingly are the media in the world’s poorest most inaccessible countries, but they too need to market themselves. With finances under threat, they will be reluctant to present anything that could threaten their income.

Foundations? Maybe. But while they could provide a valuable service by sponsoring independent reportage – so crucial to conveying a message beyond tight academic circles – they are not doing so in practice, or certainly not on a sufficiently large scale. They are more interested, it seems, in promoting their own projects and political aims.

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So it is left to the occasional blogger. The random tourist. The short-term visitor.

But our resources are limited, our access curtailed, and our independence compromised by the realities of power relationships. Troubled times.

I would love to see a path through. Any ideas?