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a314: Photography in Haiti -- Antoine adds (fwd)

From: GUY S ANTOINE <guyantoine@windowsonhaiti.com>

On the subject of photography in Haiti, Maggie Steber wrote to me the following
letter on July 17, 2001 and she gave me permission to share it with others.  It's
well worth reading.

Date: Tue, 17 Jul 2001 22:03:18

Guy--At long last, here are some thoughts about photographing in Haiti...
I think one of the best commentaries I ever read--and one I agree with--is
the poem by Felix Morrisseau-Leroy about the tourist with a camera. You
should try to find a copy of it and put it on your website as it comments
exceptionally well from a Haitian point of view. But here's what I have to say:

When one is in Haiti, one walks in a dream. Time is telescoped and one jumps
erratically from one scenario to another without any links to join them and no
interpreter to explain them. Sometimes the dream is one of excruciating beauty
and sometimes it is terrifying.

Haiti is like an ache in the bones, bittersweet and seductive, addictive. People
go there and either hate it, being repelled by the immense poverty and daily
violence of living, or they fall in love with it. I've always thought it was Haiti
that did the choosing. Whomever it wanted on its shores was welcome. If it
didn't like you or need you, it did everything in its power to repel you, to send
you flying. But if it saw in you a kindred spirit, capable of empathy and dramatic
hyperbole, it allowed you to remain. It captured your heart, breaking it daily
with its melange of beauty and suffering, and its narcotic of political dueling
and the spirit world's mysterious magic.

One must be very careful not to romanticize Haiti, neither its poverty nor the
exotic lust and violent adventure early writers described in travel books from
the 20s and 30s. It is a real place with real people, the majority of whose lives
are engaged in a daily struggle of survival to eat, to work, to live. Haiti is the
daughter of Africa and France. It grew up in isolation because it was too strong,
too independent, too strange. This land and people have been so violated by so
many who had a hand in its formation. Its lands are haunted, drenched in the
blood of great heroes and small children. It is as though the fates pointed one day
to Haiti and declared, "There shall we put the portal between Heaven and Hell!"
Everything fits neatly into that concept of extremes.

Two things are certain. The first is that Haiti is a place filled with lessons. It
chooses you because there is something you need to learn. It is a living parable,
a Shakespearean epic in which you are supposed to participate. And the
experience changes your life forever.

The second thing is that whatever you think you know about Haiti amounts
to nothing. Actually, anyone who is not Haitian can never really know Haiti, or
completely understand it. Non-Haitians like me stand with our noses pressed up
against the glass window, able to look inside but unable to enter, no matter how
much we fool ourselves to the contrary. No matter how great our desire. At best
we can offer ourselves up as a conduit which gives voice to a people whose cries
compose a song of survival.

And when it comes to using Haitians by way of photographing them, here's how
I address that issue. I have to do this or else I am no better than the worst
exploiter. When I realized that I would continue to work in Haiti, I made a pledge
that 50% of all monies I made with my Haitian photography would return to Haiti.
Not to charities. Directly to people. And if I couldn't find the people I had
photographed to give the money to, I put children through school with it and
helped a woman with five children build a house. I helped send a young woman
political activist to law school. And when I took pictures, I gave people money
even though my colleagues would chastise me if they knew because then Haitians
wouldn't allow them to take pictures unless they paid. And many times, I used
the money for people I never photographed, like a legless beggar for whom I
bought a used wheelchair or a man for whom I bought a car to use as a taxi to
feed his family. I am not wealthy at all. And it's very expensive to work in Haiti,
especially when a photographer does so without financial compensation from
magazines who are only interested in it when it's exploding. But Haiti wrings
everything out of you including your money. And money is nothing in comparison
to what you realize from it. It can be very one-sided. So it's important to keep
the balance there.

And if people don't want to be photographed, I don't take their photo. It is
important to note, however, that often, very often, Haitians have asked me to
take their picture. They wanted to be photographed and if I could, I would
take a copy of the photograph back to them. On several occasions, I took
hundreds of Polaroid photos of Aristide's street orphan boys who, in their
delight, fought over them and shredded them to pieces at a $1 per sheet of
film. And I took color prints back to the small village of Duverger where I
spent a week and took formal portraits of every single person in the area.
When I returned with the prints, people were so delighted they killed a pig
in celebration, a precious pig. I have buried people's mothers and paid for
the doctor and medicines for their children. I have paid rent on houses and
carried big suitcases of clothes and shoes into the countryside and stopped
along the road where a farmer was planting and invited him and his family
and anyone else I could find to come to the car and take what they needed.
Are these things acts of charity? No. They are payback. They are payback
for allowing me to see the beautiful young girl in a tattered blue lace dress
dancing in the dirt of Rabato. They are payback for letting me help deliver
the baby of a woman in the dirty doctorless Gonaives hospital. They are
payback for watching as the mysteres danced around the heads of hounsis
at ceremonies.

Haiti, almost more than my mother, gave life to me. I can never repay the
Haitian people. But I will try to as long as I breathe. I normally don't share
all this information with people for fear of making myself sound righteous
and self-important. But I do believe that we all have to stand for something.
One last thing: sometimes when photographers point their cameras, it is to
capture the courage and spirit of a people. While that doesn't help fill the
stomachs of starving people, the most important thing that photography
does is to document history. And photographs are evidence that someone
lived....and died....and the photographs are an attempt, in some few cases,
of ensuring that a life meant something.

None of the above excuses exploitation. That will go on long after we are
gone. What I would like to do is to be collaborative with the Haitian people
in telling their story. They wear me out because it needs so much telling. If
no one ever took the picture, who would know of the violence sent against
them, of the injustice, of the hunger and poverty, of the beauty and the
courage and the indominatable spirit of these children of history? People
would only have words to read. Word, too, can be exploitive.

Read what Seabrook wrote. And just as there are bad things written and
good things written, there are good photographs that go beyond showing
a person who is poor and show us besides someone who is rich in courage.
A bad photograph can show someone who looks miserable in their suffering
and is not taken in any way that draws us into that person's whole experience.
I cannot make excuses for photographers and what they do. I can only say
that sometimes there are some who try to do something that is good.

Well, it's a very complicated and uneasy issue. Share any or none of this
with anyone you wish. And thanks for the opportunity to write.

Respect, Maggie

Guy S. Antoine
Windows on Haiti