Tag Archives: Photography

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.

P1050364

P1050423

P1050425

P1050470

P1050503

P1050530

P1050543

P1050613

P1050660

P1050682

P1050637

P1050714

P1050647

P1050699

P1050180

P1050305

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…

P1050023

…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.

P1040612

P1040683

P1040629

P1040825

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.

P1040751

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.

P1040741

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.

P1040792

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.

P1040782

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.

P1040788

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.

P1040798

P1040841

P1040858

P1040896

P1040942

P1040949

P1040660

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.

P1030990

P1030911

P1040083

P1030996

P1040266

P1040294

(this photo take by Jean-Philippe Chauzy)

P1040175

More colours on the Route de Freres

P1020904

P1020908

P1020906

Colours on the Route de Freres

On one level, the twice daily drive to and from Dorian’s school is a chore. In another life, I am going to become a frontier traffic flow analyst, fighting embouteillages wherever they may lurk.

But take the time to look, and this drive is transformed into something rather special – a feast of shapes and colours, constantly rewarding, always fresh. I hope I never learn to filter it out.

P1020846

The traffic jam on the Route de Freres gives me time to stick my camera out the window and snap, even while negotiating oncoming lorries, tap-taps and pedestrians with my other hand.

P1020844

Sometimes I get lucky, sometimes not, but I have started to envision a few potentially perfect pictures, if only the traffic stops at the right moment, and the right confluence of people gathers at the right spot.

P1020835

P1020842

It’s a curious thing to see beauty in such poverty. Let’s be clear – there is nothing beautiful about poverty itself. It’s the ugliest thing we know. But there can be beauty in the sights one sees in a poor place. And aspects of Port au Prince are stunning. The more you look, the more stunning they become.

P1020840

There is also a wonderful sensation of constant change. Two days ago this wall was white, now it counterpoints with a delightful orange:

P1020847

And the colors are so varied. Blues, yellows, oranges… this extraordinary green:

P1020837

The vigour of it all is what appeals most. A ceaseless shifting, evolving. I feel I could take a hundred photos of this same street, and each would be remarkably different.

P1020848

P1020839

P1020843

Disabilities and horses

Photo-based post today. We visited an event where Haitian kids with disabilities were given the chance to ride and interact with horses. A small oasis; at first I was embarrassed to take photos, but the children were delighted, crowding round and giggling at the results.

I have often been slightly taken aback by kids with disabilities: they are so quick to run up and hug you, hold your hand, playful before the camera. Why should it be any other way? But nonetheless, it is challenging for the first moments. It soon becomes an enormous pleasure.

P1020780

P1020799

P1020788

P1020790

P1020755

P1020760

P1020796

P1020738

P1020768

P1020773

P1020778

P1020775

P1020758

P1020765

P1020752

On adequacy next to Saints

Been feeing a little inadequate. The culprit? The Pullitzer Prize winning “Mountains beyond Mountains” – which recounts the tale of Paul Farmer, a somewhat superhuman physician to the poor in Haiti and beyond. (He now has a job with Clinton here.) If you want to feel good about yourself, don’t read it.

Within one week of his arrival in Haiti, the 22-year-old Paul Farmer was already well on track to finding his life’s selfless calling, and had all but mastered Creole. I have a gnawing sensation that any journalist worth his salt would already be au fait with half the country’s political, intellectual and activist establishment, have unearthed three earth-shaking scoops, and redefined the way first worlders view third world deprivation for a decade.

A Haitian roadside boutique

Hmm. I have a blog, and have only just managed to organize travel outside my house. My Creole consists of decoding the eponymous banner ads slung across Petionville’s streets. (It’s actually quite a fun game. Speak the clipped words phonetically, and meaning emerges in quasi-French).

Adding to my disillusionment, our first serious excursion – beyond house-hunting – is to the seaside. And I am currently at the rather charming Petionville Club. So much for dedicating my life to telling the stories of the disenfranchised.

People, people everywhere.

Still, all comes with time, and let’s face it, as Anna reminds me, Paul Farmer didn’t have kids with him – those delightful, life-affirming, energy-sapping, career-destroying, paralysis-inducing exhaustatrons. Scant comfort, but it helps a little.

This leads me to contemplate a little how I shall measure myself here. I have a sense of wanting to make a difference – although I have grown more realistic (less ambitious?) about how much difference one person can make. Little things.

But what is the yardstick? I guess I shall seek validation through the approval of others. (A normal goal for a social animal, but we all crave it in different quantities.)

A history of journalism for the FT has spoiled me. Almost daily reports garner almost daily reaction – of one form or another. One’s life is constantly validated in a public sphere. It is hard to wean oneself off that drip of quasi-relevance.

I am also taunted by the increasing success of past acquaintances. A couple of bestselling authors. Friends emerging as ‘thought leaders’. Entrepreneurs who have made a fortune by spotting an amazing opportunity. Documentarists. Scientists. Doctors. etc etc.

I wonder whether I should instead seek my current validation through the happiness of my children. Hmm. I mean, I love them to bits and all, but it doesn’t quite do the job.

From previous positions of employment I often advised others: just do one really cool thing every couple of months, and the rest doesn’t matter. That’s as good as it gets.

Perhaps I should take my own advice. One and a half months to go!

Club UNdigo

Oh joy – online again after a three day drought. May not sound bad, but for an addict it is challenging. I have internet dreams. Mercy comes in the form of the wifi at the Petionville Club.

Back to last weekend. Finally, we scored the requisite papers to travel en famille in Anna’s big UN car, so it was off to Club Indigo.

Club Indigo at dusk

Club Indigo was Haiti’s club Med back in the Duvalier days – described by an old Reuters piece as an ‘experimental playground’ from where holiday adventurers would seek voodoo-fuelled fantasies, Haitian art and other hedonistic pursuits. (Haiti was a famed spot for sex tourism, in multiple forms). It closed around the time the Aids epidemic emerged, and due to the political instability with the end of the regime; reopened again briefly in the 90s, then closed again. A discussion on tripadvisor (that most reputable of sources) had this to say:

“Club Med had problems marketing the location due to political instability but it was doing very well according to Club Med. One day a group of Europeans were going back to the airport and were blocked on the road by peasants who were protesting against the government. That did not help a struggling Club Med, especially in Haiti. So it finally shut down.”

It was refurbished by one of Haiti’s richest families – Mevs (pronounced Meuse) – in 2006 or so, and is a relaxing if unremarkable seaside resort, food all inclusive, small rooms, giant swimming pool and great beachside sunsets. A Xanadu for international aid workers, a two hour drive north from Port-au-Prince. I dub it Club UNdigo after one look at the white Nissan’s littering the car-park.

Dorian is thrilled to be allowed in the same vehicle as his mother. “Hey – we’re going to the beach tomorrow…” “The beach?” “Yes.” “With Benson?” “No. Guess what car we are going in?” “I don’t know.” “Guess.” “The UN car?” “Yes.” “Are you joking?” “No!” “Mummy got the piece of paper?” “Yes!” “For Alandra and me?” “Yes” “And daddy?” “Yes” “And mummy?” “Yes” “Yippee–aye!” Cute. Things are looking up.

Dorian roars on the beach at Club Indigo


What strikes me about Club Indigo is that while it makes for a very pleasant break for us, it is nothing special compared to what Haiti’s competitors offer: in a more dangerous locale, with fewer facilities.

For a country hoping to reinvigorate its tourist trade – beyond the occasional returning Haitian emigre, or aid worker – this poses a challenge. The food is tasty, but not spectacular. There is little in the way of marine life to see here, I am told. So what to do?

Over dinner I ask a friend about voodoo tourism. It strikes me that pretty much everyone I spoke to in the US or UK knew only two or three things about Haiti (that is, assuming they did not get it confused with Tahiti). a. Poverty. b. Papa Doc. c. Voodoo.

Surely, I reason, voodoo is a unique selling point here, and something that could be exploited for an increasingly demanding tourist market. One travel site has a traveller gushing: “The Shows every night were incredible. One evening we had a Folklore Show that showed us all the dances and songs that the Haitians love. Another night there was a Voodoo Show. It was magical. On the way back to my room I almost stepped on a snake. They had used snakes in the Voodoo show and I believe there are no coincidences in life so I decided that snake was telling me never walk alone at night!”

I also figure that getting involved could be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I learn that the current government is not too keen on the idea. Haiti is a Catholic country, and it wants luxury tourism – so goes the mantra. Voodoo is inappropriate. Yeah right. As the old phrase goes, Haiti is 80% Catholic, 100% voodoo. What a shame to resist your country’s greatest allure to foreigners.

Soft lighting at Club Indigo

I consider the Masai in Kenya and their genius in giving tourists what they want. They dance jauntily with their stiff high jumps and flowing red robes. They tell tales of lion hunting (despite, one suspects, never having hunted one). They even gave a gift of several cows to the US after 9/11 – a perfect reminder of their allure to potential visitors. It’s a great package, and highly memorable for travellers.

But for the moment there is no voodoo extravaganza in sight at the Club Indigo. Instead we briefly watch a Brazilian capoeira group banging its drums by the water-polo pool. Nice enough, but also a common sight these days in the west.

We purchase little tickets to pay for the occasional drink, and sport orange bracelets – no doubt a hangover from the Club Med era – which entitles us to the buffet. Two nights of calm, and electricity. Easy ride home, only a brief stop at the UN roadblock where a charming Latino MP checks we have permits for our children. It’s all perfect for us; but I suspect not so enticing for the thrill-seeker who might be considering Haiti as the next frontier destination, in a quest for impressive tales in relative security.

This said, I am fully aware that I still know next to nothing about my new home – and there may be a resurgent voodoo tourism scene bubbling underneath. The famed Hotel Oloffsen – as featured in Graham Greene’s the Comedians – continues to host the voodoo rock band RAM every Thursday, and I am keen to visit. It’s downtown, however, which raises some questions about whether Anna will be allowed there. UN rules.

Meanwhile, the political situation develops. Aristide has decried the electoral commission’s failure to recognize his party as a coup d’etat. Empty rhetoric? We’ll see. Students have been demonstrating for a couple of days over the arrest of their colleagues and the UN radio crackles out occasional warnings. As of writing, another deadline has passed, and a UN Human Rights rapporteur has inexplicably said the electoral decision was kosher. Lots of anti-UN muttering.

The UN leadership is in a thorny bind: if it lets the government decision stand, it loses legitimacy. If it contests it too vigorously, it alienates the government it is trying to support.

Tricky days.

On house arrest, regret, reading gawker from Port-au-Prince and the therapeutic effect of traffic jams

A mild sensation of house arrest (I know, I know… hear me out before ye judge). The transport issue remains unresolved, so I have been getting two brief trips a day beyond these four walls – to deposit and collect Dorian from school. Tomorrow that will be reduced to one. I feel a little trapped.

There is a common emotional cycle amongst expats in challenging poor countries: elation (all those new sights and sounds!), slump (what am I doing here when I could be there?), then equilibrium. This cycle can play out repeatedly over multiple timeframes, and rarely fully disappears.

This is not entirely helped by finding oneself reading gossip on gawker.com about the latest celebrity bar in New York, and how fabulous it all is; although one finds comfort in snarky reader comments decrying said celebs as worthless.

In these moments of reflection, a nasty and dangerous parasite called regret can sometimes rear its ugly head. Regret is an insidious worm. It writhes in the creases of the mind, and casts pernicious shadows over past decisions. One’s better nature counters with rationality, with practicality and perspective (this too shall pass), but the worm slithers deftly past these defenses and burrows ever deeper.

Regrets? What's he talking about? He's got it made.

Yet help arrives from an unlikely quarter. The traffic jam on Port-au-Prince’s Route de Freres is a permanent fixture, and as one settles into its unhurried rhythm one cannot help but contemplate – as an expat – how carefree one’s life remains.

Hey mate - when you've finished feeling sorry for yourself, how about you buy an aubergine?

Market stall women crouch all day on dirty patches of crumbling concrete, beside stinking mounds of vegetable refuse. Sweating porters struggle past with overloaded wheelbarrows, finding scant purchase with collapsing tennis shoes, most likely cast offs from the US. The radio blasts a steady stream of uplifting Caribbean tunes; Benson tells me how, since the day he was born, he never knew a president who did not eventually run away from Haiti carrying with him all his ill-gotten gains.

Traffic jam? Pah. I'm a cop on a buggy. See me roar.

Benson is a trained network engineer; he has found no proper work since 2004 and is now driving expats kids to school. His wife, a university trained manager, has found no work either. It is an exercise in humility for intelligent people. Yet Benson finds genuine pleasure in playing the “sticky!” game with my three year old, and tells me of his struggles without any apparent resentment of the fact that mine are so minor in comparison.

At the school kids crowd round me while I cuddle Dorian goodbye, and I snap a shot of their fun-filed faces. I am looking forward to telling stories from this place, if only I can find an audience.

Kids wave to me at nursery school

On the salaries of domestic staff

An uncomfortable early task is to negotiate the salaries of domestic employees.

Haiti, as every article ever written about the island is quick to state, is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. (There. I have written it too now; a rite of passage.) This means salaries are low.

Nothing like Chiclets gum to while away those hours spent walking

It also creates a certain tension. You don’t want to rock the boat (and potentially skew the local economy) by paying too much, you don’t want to seem like a soft touch, and – let’s be honest here – one of the benefits of living in a developing country is, for us westerners, affordable domestic staff. It is one of Haiti’s very few ‘comparative advantages’ (a brutal euphemism for deprivation).

At the same time, for a confirmed liberal who has written many words about economic injustice, and who – in turn – is quick to condemn the grotesque salaries of western bankers at a time of financial crisis, paying poverty wages feels deeply hypocritical. You also want your staff to feel like they have a good deal. After all, they are looking after your children and keeping you safe.

So what to do? Well, basically you aim for a magical “fair wage” that offers staff a better opportunity than they would have otherwise, but still broadly in line with prevailing market conditions. The excuse you make is that – at least as a newcomer – you don’t really know who you are hiring, there will be a lot of training involved, so you will wait to see how they work out before offering a potentially more generous deal. (Experience from Africa suggests that people quickly forget these first world predilections, and settle into the local way of things. We shall see.)

Go to school, work hard, maybe you'll be able to negotiate a better salary

You also promise to yourself to treat your staff with dignity; offer them occasional luxuries from the fridge (luxuries they would never otherwise afford) – but at the same time not to create a sense of entitlement to your possessions. It is a constant balancing act.

For example, we hire Finante as a nanny. We discuss with a previous employer how much she is paid. We use what little knowledge we have about wages from other negotiations. We consider the task she faces. And thus, for this initial period, via various arcane and ultimately arbitrary calculations, we settle on the not-so-princely figure of 65 Haitian dollars, which is 325 Gourdes (Haiti’s evocatively named currency – which is around US$8 a day.

[Update. We lifted it to 400 gourdes a day. That is $10. Still not exactly high].

She makes a minimal effort at negotiation, but her heart does not appear to be really in it, and she accepts quickly.

It’s striking – unemployment is so high here that the employer is totally in the driving seat. A curious sensation to be the boss, after being on the other end of the transaction for so long. One can feel its powerful allure.