Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Haiti and Me...

I'm often asked if I miss being a news photographer in Washington, or if I wish I was covering a particularly exciting story, like the Obama inauguration. The answer is almost always: No.

An inauguration -- to take an easy example -- is a giant, complicated and generally uncomfortable affair. Security is high, and the access to almost every aspect of the event is very limited and extremely controlled. The chances of making a picture of interest or importance, let alone one that could be considered in some way unique, are microscopically slim. Covering a Big Story, especially in Washington, is almost always long, tiring, frustrating and futile. No, I don't miss it at all. As a matter of fact, I can often be found comfortably seated before the TV in my Lexington home, chuckling at the pack of photographers when they appear in cutaways.

However, now and again, there's a story I do wish I was on. Usually it's unexpected, exciting and quickly breaking. I find myself obsessively collecting information and details -- the internet is a great resource for this, the dealer to my information crack habit -- though I have no outlet whatsoever, and I imagine how I would cover it, what gear I would use, even what it would be like to be there.

Right now, the Haiti earthquake is that story, a perfectly agonizing combination of the Big Story -- the top headline in every outlet -- with the fact that I have some experience with and knowledge of the place. I ache to go down there and be the journalist of my fantasies...

I was in Haiti just over a year ago, in November of 2008. It was the first chance a group from St. Patrick church had to go to our twin parish in Fond Pierre since the political and security systems completely broke down some four years earlier.

While I had some pictures of Port-au-Prince, it wasn't the focus of our journey, just a way station on the way into the mountains to the east. The only picture I found in my computer from there -- digitized from film shot on an old Rollei twin-lens reflex camera -- was of the dog at Matthew 25 house, "Boss."

He is of an unspecified breed -- tan and sleek, with those pointed ears. I don't think I saw another type throughout the trip. He ruled comfortably at the house in its Port-au-Prince neighborhood.

An email to Josh Harvey, chairman of the Haiti committee at St. Patrick, said that Matthew 25 survived with minimal damage, and its collection of supplies as well as neighboring soccer field made it a central collection point for locals needing medical help. NBC stumbled upon them a couple of days after the quake struck.

We spent only one night in Matthew 25 after arriving, getting up the next morning for the day-long drive into the mountains. It's a journey that, in linear miles, would take only a couple hours in the US, and is notable now for the improved condition (at least before the earthquake) of the main highway, under construction to deserve that name thanks to EU support.

Any distance out of the city (and in many neighborhoods in the city), construction quickly reduces to cobbled-together wood frame structures. These are generally one or two-room homes for entire extended families. When our four-wheel-drive vehicle became mired down in the deep ruts in the road, just outside of Fond Pierre (fortunately), I paused to make a picture of this house overlooking the scene. It is a typical home.

Given the opportunity -- an opportunity few get -- building does step up to a cinderblock-like construction, covered with plaster. The church at Fond Pierre, being rebuilt when we visited after the old church's roof threatened to fall in without benefit of earthquake -- shows how it was done. Here we see two of the workers with their diesel generator, used to power an arc welder with which they joined metal beams to attach the new roof.

Behind you can see the concrete and block construction, typical of the buildings in Haiti. This is what was asked to survive the 7.0 quake. Frankly, I'm surprised as much survived as it did -- I would have expected virtually everything in Port-au-Prince to collapse like a castle built of children's blocks.

I include the above picture -- aside from the fact that I just like it -- to show the finished, plastered wall of the school that stands adjacent to the church. (Both do still stand essentially undamaged, according to Fr. Jean Louis Malherbe, the parish priest.) The school serves over 300 children, and thanks to the efforts of the Rockbridge-Haiti Medical Alliance now has a nurse and small clinic.

Medical services, especially in the countryside, are virtually nonexistant in Haiti in the best of times. Statistically, there are only 2.5 doctors for every 10,000 Haitians. (Yeah, read that again, and remember that most of them are concentrated in urban areas.) In Fond Pierre, it was a day's walk to the most meagre medical facility.

Also, I wanted to show -- and I originally shot the picture to capture -- those chairs. Oddly graceful, with a charming, handmade coarseness, they seem to summarize so much about Haiti. They're cobbled together from whatever is at hand, but assembled with a certain care and love, especially those tiny, child-sized ones. I both wanted to figure out how to get one and bring it home and how to get a consistent supply, as I am convinced they would sell well and expensively in artsy shops in America.

I like to think that, if we can simply lift from their shoulders the crushing burdens of corruption and insecurity, grinding poverty and deforestation, just long enough to take a breath, the Haitians could do to their economy and infrastructure and lifestyle what they did, in a small scale, with those little chairs: pull together what they had at hand to make something useful and more comfortable and, in the end, truly beautiful.

Here we see a teacher using the under-construction church to get above the children after Mass (said in the open air of the school courtyard while work on the church continued). He holds a bag of candy -- leftover Halloween candy brought by a member of our group. Candy is not a rare treat there ... it just doesn't really come at all.

The children wear their school uniforms, which is why they all look alike. The uniform is the only "nice" clothes they generally have. A T-shirt and shorts, often without shoes, is daily wear. Smaller children are commonly seen with just the shirt, or nothing at all.

Again, note the construction technique, revealed before the plaster is put over it, and imagine a building like that receiving a good, sharp shake.

Above, the school's principal holds his 1-year-old daughter as they watch an amateur show of sorts that sprung up after Mass.

Below, we see children at Mass...

And some pictures from another day. I believe this was after a parish meeting, called for our benefit. In these pictures, you can see the homemade pews in the school courtyard, drawn up to make the temporary church.

I find the boy above particularly symbolic at this moment. Many children in my pictures have a curious, if uncertain, openness to them -- as seen with the girls to the left in the first picture -- while others are openly amused. (After all, remember that we were the first "blancs" to arrive in four years; it was as if the freak show had come to town.) But this boy seems deeply suspicious, as if working out what my angle was.*

I can imagine Haiti and the Haitians are metaphorically looking at the world this way. They're happy for the help, no doubt, and more than hopeful for more. And it is my opinion that we need to look at this not as emergency relief alone, but as the sudden, swift start of a long, hard haul to help bring Haiti up from its current state of grinding survival, staggering from moment to moment rather than in any way growing or improving.

But we should have no illusions that the Haitians will -- or should -- take our help and our "recommendations" and march forward as directed. As time goes on, we need to keep helping, but we need to do it with a certain understanding. Let us recall that this is the only slave nation to successfully rebel and become independent.

I hope to return to Haiti, and I hope to be of some help, as time goes on. The story right now, the story that gets a journalist all juiced up and ready to go, is the earthquake and its immediate effect and recovery. And, hell yes, I wish I was down there covering it, not because I revel in human misery or imagine some great glory, but because I'm at heart a journalist, and when things happen, newsworthy things, things that make people pause and look and wonder what happens next and what happened to cause it, I want to be there.

But most of all, I want to watch what happens next, after we move on to the next political race and the next troop movements in Afghanistan and the next Hollywood star breakdown, and the people of Port-au-Prince and Fond Pierre are left to their lot. And, maybe, in my little way, I can help...

*Well he should be suspicious, of me (for, let's face it, I'm all about getting good pictures, especially in the moment of making them) and of those like me, who arrive in his town announcing -- like in the old joke about Washington -- that we're here to help them.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Out Standing in My Field...

This probably falls under my "Welcome to My World" category, but I like putting the punchline before the story...

Yesterday was another early morning at the station. I find myself (actually, quite contentedly) on a regular cycle of doing the editing for the Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning shows, requiring I get there a good couple of hours before they begin. These are the early morning shows -- you know, the ones that come on before the network's early morning show? So the workday starts at 6 a.m. on the weekend, and at a mind-numbing 4 a.m. on Monday. However, the set up here is to explain that, on the weekend, I then often go out and shoot a couple of stories in the afternoon to fill out my 8 hours. (You'll recall that, in the fall, it was on this shift that I became the festival king.)

Yesterday, after some snow and ice-induced quiet (more on that to come, when I get the pictures scanned), it came again: three stories. First, the declaration for city council by a candidate with a name even Dickens would have been embarrassed to make up: Goodpitch. (It's for real.) Then a swing by the Civic Center, where while it's under 20F outside, they're holding the Home and Garden Show -- some quick footage and a couple of interviews. And then -- and this is where I've been heading for two paragraphs -- a local county was to have a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Hospice building.

Hospice, for those of you fortunate enough not to know, helps people who are terminally ill at the very end. It's a great service, and even though I would have covered the event with dedication anyway, I did want to get this to help out.

However, by that time I was running about 15 minutes late, and was somewhat unfamiliar with its location. Luckily, I got a Garmin GPS unit for Christmas, and with a quick input of an address, I was off at high speed with a female voice telling me where to go. (And yes, that is a familiar state of things for me.)

Still 15 minutes behind, the GPS tells me, "Address at left," and it does look like what I expected: an empty field. However, there's something I don't expect. The field is totally empty. It is a barren landscape, not a soul in sight. No ceremony. No ceremony winding down. No confused and irritated hangers on telling me I missed it. Nothing.

Across the street (as the directions in the press release had said) was the sheriff's office. I pulled over there, parking in a spot on the end of a row of carefully reserved parking places, for various captains, lieutenants, investigators, etc. All empty. I thought I'd ask there; maybe the Hospice people had taken shelter from the cutting wind. But, while the outer door was open, the inner was locked. Did I mention all those reserved spaces were empty? Apparently the sheriff is closed Saturday.

Past the field (still empty) and down a cross street, at the bottom of a long, gentle slope, was the county nursing home. I drove down there. There were cars in their lot, but the door in was locked as well. I saw an old man dozing in a wheelchair through the glass, but the reception desk was clearly unattended.

At this moment, I think of a tradition I learned shooting stills that I call the "Editor's Frame." This is a picture you shoot that will never be used. It's usually a wide angle view of the event you're covering, meant to show the editor (who will later complain about your other pictures not being close enough, or not a good angle, or some such thing) just how horrific the situation was. As I walked back to the car, I decided to do the TV equivalent. If nothing else, I told myself, we would then have some stock footage of the location should someone want to do a story on the new Hospice.

I pulled out the camera and began to walk back up through the field, up that long, gentle slope. It was a longer trudge than I first thought, through the still gusting, icy wind, and this really was a big, empty field. Acres and acres of it. I shot long pans of the place, the only feature being short, crunchy, brown, dried grass for hundreds of yards, until that nursing home at one end and a line of scrubby trees marking the property line. It was like standing in the tundra, alone in that empty ground, me in my black duffle coat, giant Panasonic slowly swinging from side to side.

It was only when I was back in the car and driving to the station that I wished I had taken out my Leica and made a picture using the self-timer. (Though, I don't know where I might have set it.) It would have been a remarkable image, that flat open ground from frame edge to frame edge, my dark figure poking up in the center.

We left messages, but I don't know what ever happened to the ceremony. Welcome to my world...