Excerpts from How To Photograph in Haiti
I received the unprecedented permission to photograph Haitians during the aftermath of their pathetic 1980 arrival on the shores of south Florida. These survivors were referred to at that time as driftwood but no one had a count of the many souls who perished at sea. The Cuban Marielitos who preceded them by months, on the other hand, had been led to Miami by welcoming flotillas. Although both the Cubans and Haitians were detained at the INS Krome Resettlement Camp on the outskirts of Miami, the Haitians were not warmly greeted.
In 1984 I received a Fulbright fellowship to photograph in Haiti, and a few years later began recalling impressions of my experiences there, while keeping more up-to-date reflections on my subsequent trips, through 2000–by then it was a different country. The following accounts span these travels, which covered most of Haiti. The popular perceptions of Haitians here differed from my view of them there, but the same held true for my perceptions of Cubans based on my trips to Havana.
Haiti was transformative and unlike any other place on earth. It changed radically with the advent of democracy when Baby Doc left; its roots took a long time to take hold, if they ever did. For sure, I was there during fascinating times – the end of old Haiti and the in-between years. It was wonderfully surreal, especially during my first three years there. I was alone, among the very few white people who were missionaries and state department types. The number of businessmen dwindled soon after the cruise ships stopped calling on Haiti. It was now too desperate a place for most people to want to be but I thought most everything about it was beautiful. These few excerpts address some of my experiences while being among Haitians.
Light rain has cleared the streets en-route to the once-luxurious Hotel Castlehaiti in the foothills above Port-au-Prince. It is a ten-dollar taxi ride from the airport, an ungodly sum to almost every Haitian, to Haiti's only large hotel. The final incline into the hotel driveway is slippery, and the driver makes three or four fishtailing attempts before he finally negotiates it. A few children watch, amused, as rainwater covers their faces, making them wet and shiny, while making their t-shirts cling to their skinny bodies.
The Castlehaiti sits high above the city squalor, dying a lingering death in aged 1950s moderne-style architecture. A small and colorful Haitian floor show still goes on here, but the crowds no longer come to drink and dance. The gift shop is empty. The elevator seems incongruent and a bit shaky, so I take the stairwell to my room and end up on the balcony, staring out over the kidney-shaped pool to the glowing lights of the city and the black sea beyond. It is difficult to fathom that this is the site of Graham Greene’s, The Comedians.
I awake just after sunrise, when the light first scrapes across the treetops. Port-au-Prince is still quiet, and the view of the city by the sea is sanitized, even romantic. Morning light here is magnificent, effervescent and plentiful. It appears that Haiti is lit from within; the moisture in the tropical foliage makes every color pure and radiant. The light casts its spell on beauty and horror alike, on ghettos, markets and the cemetery. From this distance, the cemetery can be mistaken for a town, a turquoise planned and gated community. Its aboveground crypts are freshly painted and elaborately decorated, accented with wreaths crafted from fifty-gallon steel drums. The carved metal flowers seem fresh. Soft pastels reinforce the illusion.
Activity soon teems around Marche Fer, the Iron Market. In the heat of the morning, crowds make the city streets nearly impassable. Nearby pathways twist through cinderblock ghettos, connecting hovels side by side, as one above the other crawl up the hills, more like a beehive than a human community. Buildings are unfinished and electric wires are a tangle, great bouquets of pirated lines that extend seemingly without order shooting in masses from near-dead transformers throughout the ghettos. Holes in a rusted pipe spray water eight feet high to serve as a communal shower. It is constantly in use, white soapy water running into the street and downhill toward the city.
On every downtown block, women sit selling fried food and gossiping. Men selling frescos, which are chipped ice drinks, push aged but carefully painted carts whose steel wheels are no longer round. Vendors shave ice from large blocks that melt slowly in the heat while bees buzz around the sweet syrup bottles. Poor women sell cold water for one cent per glass, ladling it from large aluminum bowls balanced on platters atop their heads. Young boys walk through the traffic selling soft drinks. Dodging cars and weaving through traffic, they work the crowds all day long, tapping a spoon against two soda bottles for musical advertisement.
At night, the downtown streets become an empty stage set. The lifelessness is incomprehensible after the maddening daytime hordes of people, but the daylight vignettes have played out; now the streets are dark, eerie in the dim glow of so few electric lights. A worn tone of dust enshrouds the place. While the sky retains a purple hue, a few people bathe with sewer water at the gutters. Late at night, groups of men still gamble around a wheel or with cards or bet the lottery for a fix of salvation. Rats, wooden display frames, and the sleeping homeless conceal themselves in the shadows. The sky is black now. I walk back to the sanctity of the empty and half-decent hotel.
Voodoo is Haitian life. From West Africa, through four hundred years of enslavement, the Haitians have honed a social structure built upon their own language and religion. The tenets of voodoo are part of the collective unconscious of the people, learned somewhere between breathing and language. The unique Haitian religion has been misrepresented by Hollywood and was perverted by President-a-vie Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier himself. Duvalier devoured his own people. He ravaged them with the ton ton macoutes, Duvalier's own army of terrorists, those wasted people from the slums and beyond to whom he gave tremendous power to do violence, and also with voodoo, which he used to imbue the fabric of everyday life, culture and commerce with the fear of spiritualism. Fright was his inspiration.
Duvalier established his reign with a personal militia of thugs and terrorists who nullified even the thought of rebellion. In every detail, Duvalier, an amateur ethnologist, heightened the terrifying presence of his killer elite. The militiamen shed all personal identity behind denim uniforms and dark Ray-Ban sunglasses. If Francois Duvalier epitomized the loa Baron Samedi, the spirit of the dead, his ton ton macoutes, in their red neckerchiefs, were the kin of Ougoun, the spirit of war. The reports of torture and random acts of violence by the macoutes compare with gruesome accounts from the Holocaust.
Soon after Duvalier's election in 1957, Haitians of means fled to Paris, Montreal, and New York, leaving fewer Haitian professionals at home than abroad. With the educated people scared away, peasants filled the ranks of the macoutes. Day or night, in uniform and in plain clothes, they were invincible and invisible. Macoutes were everywhere, in any occupation: tap-tap drivers, doctors, even priests. Terrorism, extortion and beatings became as routine as procreation. No one was safe or immune to their wrath.
On this morning in March 1984, my first in Haiti, a perpetual flame and honor guard still ennoble the Duvalier family mausoleum. Two years later, within hours of Jean “Baby Doc” Claude's exile, the Haitian people will devastate this resting place, down to its last bone. The ravaging of the cemetery will begin in the dechaukj, that violent uprooting of the homes, possessions and bodies of the hated ton ton macoute. Afterward, the cemetery will become a hunting ground for bones, brains, and other ingredients for the practice of black magic or voodoo. When the people tear open the crypt of Francois Duvalier, they will find it conspicuously empty.
I go to the festival at Plaine-du-Nord, a village near Cap Haitien where voodooists gather around a large, rectangular mud hole. Even in the unshaded summer sun, it is a dark place. People come to this fete primarily from the fields, hills and mountains of the north, more so than from the immediate locale. Their churches frown on such superstitious practices, but the region is poor; its people try to farm exhausted soil as is done throughout Haiti. Desperation changes to delight, or at least some kind of hope that the gods will be good to them during the coming year, as they are transformed in the silt – the essence of life – into clay beings. Through a remarkable degeneration/regeneration of frenzy, possession, and trance, souls draw nearer to the primordial source.
People lie in wait like premonitions, unmoving in the thick brown mud. Hundreds of spectators wait, too, and watch, with few clues to their thoughts on their faces. One Haitian poses like an insect, a praying mantis. Children encrusted with half-dried mud seem delighted; like lizards, they peer into the crowds, watching for someone to throw a coin. Mostly the worshippers stand around the basin while Trou St. Jacques (St. James in his French cloak) waits for those possessed by the god of war, Ogoun Feraille.
Some people in the basin move slowly, like alligators. Their hollow eyes roam. Movement is sensual and blurs the line between purpose and purposeless. It is so slow as to be imperceptible. Some of the possessed are in total repose like reptiles whose darting tongues might lash out suddenly at a target and retract even faster, then abruptly thrash about, overcome with the spirit. This act is contagious; others rise, as if emerging from the sea. If mounted by the loa, they roll more violently about, then return to placid peace. One may roll over the flat bank and spring wildly to life into a quickly parting crowd. Spectators may be pushed in to the muddy basin by an iguana. Others may be offered knowledge in the rubbing and stroking of muddy hands along their bodies, or in an embrace from one possessed who rises like Venus.
Those who are newly entranced run out of control, mud shooting every which way, their bodies jerking, rolling, and pulling against gravity as if they may fall over or fly away. The limbs of those entranced flail wildly; their movements dominate the space. They rush frantically through crowds until they collapse, crowds parting and people sprinting out of the way. Those divined by the mud are in touch with the loa Ogoun himself. The old soldier resides below, still wearing his Revolutionary uniform. Red is his color and he plays with fire. His lover is Erzulie Frada Dahomey, the goddess of home, purity, and love. The Haitians at Saut d'Eau appeal to her.
Nearby, mambos who are the voodoo priestesses give advice and tell the future. Energetic drumming fills the background. Plaine-du-Nord is alive with rage, possession, and ecstasy. The practice is celebratory, but with a dark side. The experience leaves me with a sense of foreboding. I move on, north of Cap Haitien to the village of Lemonade, where St. Anne gets her turn.
Night has fallen by the time a tap-tap, an old Mack truck with a cage-like cargo bed enclosed by wooden planks, lumbers through Port Salut. I want to be back in Les Cayes by dawn to watch the fishermen cast their nets, so I climb the ten feet and cross a leg over the sideboards. I have no idea what or who is below me. The strangeness, beyond thought, sinks in slowly as we ride through the dark, like ghosts.
I am sitting on a sack of charcoal, unable to distinguish features of the faces around me. Two mothers cradle infants in their arms, a man wrapped in a white blanket perches on top of the cab, and a half-dozen other men lean and sit around the back of the cargo truck. We stop to pick up another passenger. One man moves to the rear to help the newcomer load his belongings through a grill in the back. The cargo is cumbersome, possibly metal, and as he lifts it, the helpful man catches his hand between the truck grating and the heavy object, yelping as he is cut.
He looks at his wound but cannot see much in the dark night. He is in pain, aware that he is bleeding, and with a flick of his wrist – a natural gesture – his blood flies my way. There is no time to fear infection or to otherwise react consciously, but I instinctively lower my head so that my straw hat blocks any of it from landing in my eyes or on my lips. I then move out of range before he can repeat the movement.
Out of danger, I gaze at the starry tropical sky. The ride is bumpy, as usual, and not precarious; we are out of the mountains. I stand for the rest of the trip, holding a side plank and letting my body sway. I worry that I will contaminate my hands and inadvertently touch my face.
A couple of miles before arriving in town, the tap-tap's engine dies. Breaking down is a typical occurrence here. A man comes to collect each passenger's fare, mine is five gourdes, and the ride is over. I climb over the sideboards and jump four feet to the dirt road, to create a puff of dust. After a calm and surreal walk back to the pension, I am too tired to take a cold shower. I wash my hands well, and then fall asleep with my clothes on. At four a.m., all across Haiti, the roosters crow. I make my way toward the waterfront before sunrise.
Aristide, exiled, is reinstated as president of Haiti in 1994. Now the city is calm. People are relaxed. Grime and dust have disappeared under fresh paint. Mounds of trash and cuttings have been loaded onto trucks and hauled away. People continue to sweep the sidewalks and streets. The FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti) headquarters, around the corner from the Palace, has been left standing, but it is gutted, as if bombed, though neighboring storefronts are undamaged. A young man sweeps the sidewalk in front of the now-defunct office of terror. The former military has often used symbolism for brutality, leaving a mutilated corpse in front of a polling precinct; the young man’s sweeping, with Haitian precision, is subtle retribution.
Palm frond arches decorate the neighborhoods, traditionally heralding Aristide’s proverbial arrival home. Flowers bloom in the ghettos. Pebbles and rocks are placed to create drawings, with the road as canvas. Graffiti from the years since Duvalier, saying "Aba" (down with) a person or party, has been painted away. Aristide's name has been only whispered during his three-year absence, because any mention of him could have gotten one killed.
The sun is up, the shadows are short, and the air is hot. But still the area in front of the Palace gates is nearly empty. The few men and women lingering here make it feel more like an HRS unemployment office than the start of an historic event, but as I walk around, unable to be idle, more and more people arrive. First they cluster along the fence, claiming the best seats in the house. Then they stake out any and every elevation with a view of the stage in front of the Palace door. People stand with the large statue of Dessalines and a maroon, a revolutionary slave-fighter, at the adjacent park. At a brisk and steady pace, people swell the organism of the crowd into a force with which to be reckoned. Ra-Ra bands dance paths through the crowd with speed and determination, snaking their way along with their excited revelers. There are posters calling Aristide "savior" and Clinton "hero." Screaming, singing, dancing, the bandleaders stretch out an American flag. This, too, is an excuse for a party. Thank you, America! Many wear a button supplied by our embassy that shows the American and Haitian flags crossed. This excitement is meant to be seen, not only heard, and the promise of better times to come is off to a good start.
By eleven o'clock, the men, women and children in front of the Palace are an amebic mass, a great dense presence that must be indistinguishable as human from above. Strong hands grip the fence bars of an edifice designed in antipathy to the culture it should have served. As the designated arrival hour comes and goes, the people are patient, in a way that has little to do with forbearance. They are oblivious to the long wait, having too good a time to worry about being kept waiting. They hold the line easily for hours. They may spontaneously jump and shout for joy, or they may lounge in a tree. Everyone is doing something, from balancing on the inch-thick crossbar of a fence handily to waving a rubber chicken above the crowd as a tribute to Aristide's party. Few film crews or photographers cross the barrier to be among the people, but once in a while a long lens is aimed their way, in my direction.
Beyond the fence bars, the stage is set. More than a hundred chairs are on the temporary platform, and media crews have literally climbed their ladders to claim their spaces for the better views they offer. By noon, some twenty thousand people pack the streets and plaza in front of the Palace grounds. It is not many people, considering the magnitude of the event, but it is enough to make for good coverage and strong images. Who comes and why is insignificant, on this side of the gates. There is no individual identity in the mass, and any action is for the good of the cameras. Like film set extras, the crowd represents the populous tying the larger audience to their own story. The event's orchestrators no doubt knew that the Haitian people would not let them down, that whenever the time came for a crowd shot or a cut-away to an individual, Haitian men and women would rise to the occasion and look great on the screen. It makes good business sense to let the extras get high on the sunshine.
Well into the afternoon, with everyone primed and ready, the start of the ceremony comes by surprise. The beautifully choreographed entrance of thirteen double-bladed military helicopters begins with their distinct sound. All heads flip back to search the sky, but there is only a distant hum reverberating from the green mountains. Arms reach up, fingers stretch, necks crane. Video crews turn away from the people to those distant specks which are suddenly and wondrously present against the shaded mountains. The people seem to be reaching to the stars, holding high the symbols of the cause – flags, pictures, chickens – as the theatrics escalate.
The helicopters are getting closer, and are soon clearly visible. Some groups stampede out into the surrounding streets until they run out of steam and disperse back into the crowd like runners after a race. Levity and the sense of shenanigans are momentarily lost. One man moves quickly through the crowd with two others flanking him, holding a stick and board sign to which he has attached a grid of small, crude photo portraits – thirty-six members of the ton ton macoutes. This new brashness expresses not Aristide's reconciliation, but the people's hostility. As the dim, hypnotic chops become distinct and real, the helicopters loom larger than life, heaven-sent from the United States. They make a graceful swoop, mimicking the curve of the mountains behind them, and the first one makes its impressive descent to the Palace lawn. It is a convincing show. Huge, powerful, and intense, this otherworldly display heralds the first democratically elected Haitian leader's return, and with wild physical abandon, the crowd unites in an explosion of cheering and gymnastics.
Wild embraces, thrashing bodies, ecstatic screams, and then suddenly everyone is refocused on a second helicopter as it follows the pattern in. The honored guests exit beneath the whirling blades, the wind adding cinematic drama as the dignitaries stride out one at a time, with a runway model's timing, between the dais and the kneeling media corps. Every stuffed suit looks like Gregory Peck, hair blowing in the wind, crouching away from the war machines while two more fall into position. Beyond the fence, the Haitians are ready for fill shots or cut-aways, but for now the cameras will record only the taking of the empty seats on the stage.
It seems as though this processional will never end. Between the precision of the helicopters' arrival and the pomp of the guests' parade across the lawn, a blanket of quiet has fallen over the Haitians there. It might be amazement that their president is about to enter the Palace and reclaim their short-lived freedom, or they may be transfixed by the show. The Americans must feel great. Regardless of political persuasion, or how one feels about blacks, foreigners, the CIA, or Clinton, the high production values play especially well on television. I am teary eyed, proud to be an American; our might has been put to work for a good cause. Selflessness, liberation, democracy and America are all display. There are speeches. Aristide performs brilliantly. The former priest knows the proper political tone. Then everyone goes home.
Through my good friend and Haiti’s best traveler, Patrick Lahey, I met missionaries George and Carol Ann Truelove. I had visited them at their remote outpost on the northwest plateau and they invited me to come anytime and encouraged me to bring my son, Mathew. He chose to join me when he was 12 years old.
Mathew finally succumbs and Carol Ann cuts his long hair while everyone watches. George grins and asks me if I am next. I tell him that I cut my hair every six months, whether I need to or not. Mathew and I walk out into the pitch-black night. I stand with my son as he comes to understand that he has never seen the stars before now.
Rain strikes the tin roof. I watch Mathew's sleeping silhouette. I am still, comfortable, in awe of him. I know that the storm outside will clear and leave the morning crisp. A contest of noise begins well before sunrise: barks, baas, moos, oinks, and neighs in atonal combinations. Roosters act as referees, starting and ending each round as the animals compete to drown out one another. If there are rules, I cannot divine them. I lie in bed enjoying the chaos outside.
At six-thirty, I walk into a drizzle of rain from a gloomy sky. This subdues my enthusiasm for work, and I worry that Mathew's spirits may be dampened as well. After pancakes and as the Truelove children prepare for school, George, Mathew and I decide to hike to the precipice at the edge of the plateau which overlooks Môle-Saint-Nicolas and the sea. Columbus’ voyage to the Americas in 1492 led his armada to Haiti's northern coast and the establishment of what is now Môle-Saint-Nicolas; in recent times this is the area where many rickety sailboats depart for the United States of America and subsequently land on the shores of South Florida.
Just yards from home, George turns onto a footpath that crisscrosses the plains. The terrain is rocky and the scrub is knee-deep. The night storm has left the ground muddy, reminding us that Mare Rouge means "red marsh." The soft ground sucks our sneakers down and mud crawls up our calves. The rocks are jagged and the bush is full of barbed branches. I slide while moving forward, clamping my camera bag under my left arm, keeping my right arm free and an eye on my son. Mathew's strides are longer and surer than mine.
The air is moist and the morning remains overcast. The path becomes even muddier, but neither George nor Mathew seems concerned. I squelch a desire to turn back. I do not hike for the sake of hiking; whatever I do favors photographing. My choices are based on photographing, which makes crowds and city streets preferable to wilderness for me. I have learned, however, to take advantage of unexpected opportunity, of scenarios not of my choosing. Besides, to turn back now would be mostly a pathetic attempt to protect Mathew, who needs no protection. Instead, I take advantage of Mathew's trip, and look forward to being in this remote place.
The sun breaks and the ground hardens. Mathew points out a lizard the size of a steak knife. On the plain are clusters of trees and small shacks where cultivators, Haitian farmers, stay at night to guard their crops. There are slight elevations to this terrain. I wonder if the sharp rocks are the results of ancient volcanos. Trees, birds, and scattered huts are around us. Mathew untangles a rope that has tightened around a sheep, immobilizing it. This place is cleansing and liberating. One can erase the blackboard here, then rewrite one's own story and even fulfill a dream, as I have done here in Haiti for a decade.
We encounter four men with hoes resting on their shoulders. They greet us with Haitian elan and agree upon the proper path for us, from which we have veered. Mathew photographs them without any cue from me. I am impressed by his presence of mind; he is enviably natural.
We climb some rocks to reach a clearing that offers a view of Môle, still a distant sight recognizable by its basin, a natural harbor. Because we have not brought water, and so are not prepared for another two hours of hiking, George warns that we had best not attempt Môle. We rest on this site. Mathew sits on a boulder. He is bleeding around his ankles and calves, but seems unfazed. George stands, reading his Bible. I walk around, anxious. George tells Mathew that Haitian boys spit on a rock three times, then take aim with it and hit their target. The technique works best with a flat rock, he says. Mathew practices this prehistoric skill.
We take a different route back, which makes the subtle similarities of the fields deceiving, even disorienting. We find wild carrots, and Mathew pulls one. We pass sweet potatoes, then coffee trees growing beneath a cluster of broad-leaf shade trees.
"Honneur?" I ask, as we slowly approach a family's hut and await the expected response. I have asked with civility if we may enter with “I bring honor to your house.” I wait for an equally courteous “Respa,” meaning, "I accept your visit with respect." It comes and we enter. George knows the five adults and infant there. I photograph, as always, without drawing attention. While all are sitting in the shade, I ask to see in the adjacent hut, where there is a five-foot-high pile of beans in one corner, in very dark contrast to a red wool blanket on a cot. The space is not simply clean, it is meticulous in its finish. The beans form a pyramid and the blanket is pulled taut. The room has a finer distinction because it is not presented for approval. Form follows function in Haiti. I call Mathew in. His camera has color film. Mine never does.
The sun is strong. The land is dry and hard now, without a trace of last night's rains. I think that if Mathew and I come back to Mare Rouge, we will try to spend a night in a mud hut.
Back at the Trueloves’ iced tea is served with lunch. Behind the house, Mathew makes kites with some of the children who have half-days at school. I suggest that we walk up the road from Nan Santrane, the village around the Trueloves’ home, to Mare Rouge, where there is a semblance of a town. The Trueloves’ son, Austin, joins us and grabs a cheap plastic camera. I put a roll of film in it.
People greet Austin and he takes their pictures. The plateau ends by the entrance to town and overlooks the valley that leads to the town of Jean Rabel. Here is the arch by the crucifix to welcome travelers home to Mare Rouge. There is no downtown, just small cinderblock buildings painted mostly in blues. There are no vehicles, and Mare Rouge is quiet and of course very hot.
We are invited into a school. The room is crowded with benches and the focus is on a chalkboard. Mathew is properly reserved. I thank the teacher, and we go down the street to the Dispensary. Five people sit patiently on the porch. There is no clue to their business there, whether they are waiting for medicines, a doctor, or word about a patient. In the first room is a boy, about Mathew's age, lying on a cot. His stomach is distended and his eyes are vacant. His mother comes over, as if to solicit my help. The Third World is no place to be sick. I do not know what Mathew may be thinking.
From the clinic, we walk the hundred yards through town to the concrete arch at the edge of the plateau. Sparkling palm trees sweep below the horizon, filling it. The valley is a green pool. The sky is a pitched roof of blue. This is billion-dollar scenery, lost in the poorest of countries. Behind us is a small cemetery. The crypts for infants intrigue Mathew; the young are not supposed to die. He moves through the maze of these sun-bleached, crumbling mini eternal resting places. He tries to decipher names and dates of the prematurely deceased, and perhaps something about life. Austin stays away; he knows that you are not supposed to mess with death in Haiti.
The path leads on to the market, which today is only an empty field. We stop up the road at a hut in which men are baking bread to sell at market tomorrow. A stone oven fills most of the dark interior. We return through the speckled light of woods, bending and turning to the Trueloves', where women wait by the clinic for Carol Ann to distribute food provided by CARE via USAID.
Mathew finishes making a kite and we go walking with George and Austin in the late afternoon light. Paths dip and rise and turn and disorient by Nan Charbeau, the surrounding region. The plains stretch beyond, but here the leafy branches of wide-leafed trees create a shady primordial space of timeless beauty and repose. We take a footpath down to a rock wall, to a spot where water flows slowly from a crack. A banana leaf has been positioned so that the water funnels down it, and Mathew and Austin drink from this trough. The three women there finish banging and twisting their laundry, then return to the flowing water. The boys say the water tastes sweet.
Austin darts up a nearly vertical dirt wall that encloses the cove, and Mathew meets the temptation. Austin gets over halfway up, to where roots dangle, but slides down before grabbing one, as does Mathew. He grins widely and tries again. Time and again, they try to reach the roots. They are without frustration, finding their fun at the moment of suspension, of stasis, before they slide down the dirt. If a boy were careless, he could take a dangerous fall backwards. Only I think of this; I am Jewish, and prone to worry. These are unfailing trials. The boys love getting dirty and sliding some eight feet down, laughing all the way. I do not warn Mathew to be careful, but I do stay at the base, trying to seem oblivious to the boys at play. George has settled back against a huge fallen tree trunk and is a disinterested spectator. I, too, with camera in hand, become a spectator. I have a silent appreciation for this distant land, bush-like jungle, the Haitians, my son, the Trueloves, plenty of film, and light and air.
Beauty is everywhere, yet Mathew and I are irrelevant to this remote, mystical place. I can only be aware of my own sensations, and believe in my son's growth. Perhaps photography gives form to faith. Perhaps it is prayer, a kind of reverence. It is always homage. I photograph this way–with a deep breath and a prayer.
Twenty-five feet diagonally above us, a man appears like a statue, hidden in silhouette by strong backlight. His hands are on his hips. To his left, a woman reclines on a floral bed as if she were modeling a swimsuit. She seems nonchalant, unaware of her own grace and powerful presence. I move slowly up the steep, pathless incline, keeping low, using long stretches, and anchoring my feet by roots and rocks. Someone runs past me, and then I sprint. I stop just below the woman and she smiles, though her mouth hardly moves. Haitians can express emotion almost telepathically, it seems to me, and I make my assumptions real when I photograph her and she remains still. Children gather, taking their places around her. They seem posed for mannered painting.
We hike back up through sixty or seventy feet of foliage to the hillside path. I run back to retrieve my hat, which is being brought to me. (I will eventually lose this hat in Cuba, where it is appropriated after falling from the pouch of my camera bag.) George suggests another spring. The paths and crannies are all in shade now, and the sunlight filters through the trees in spots. The heat is hardly noticeable. George leads us on a footpath to Mama Gimo. Noises meet us, then the sight of people around an iron spigot. A basin is constructed from cement. Children follow us as we walk around, then back across the road to three cement-enclosed tubs. People are cleaning clothes or themselves. We relax, watch children play, and walk back to the Trueloves’ as the sun sets.
Dinner is waiting. We are tired from our three-and-a-half-hour hike. Carol Ann comments that Mathew's hair is not shaped right. I shower, holding back a scream against the cold water. When I ask for Mathew, Carol Ann says that he is out with the other boys, getting the sheep. The first thing a child learns here is to carry wood and get water; the second is "changing the animals." There is little grass here, and less fencing, and the sheep are moved as often as three times a day to provide them grazing land. They are tied up for security, and some wear yokes to keep them out of others’ yards. At night, they are all brought home to keep them safe from thieves.
I am alarmed. Mathew is running with Haitian boys at night, in search of sheep kept off the beaten paths! I can’t help but think that thieves might play into this imagined nightmare I’m fabricating. I try to hide my worry and ask where the boys were headed, then put on sandals and grab a flashlight. The screen door slams behind me. Five minutes feels like twenty, but might have been only two. There is no sign of children anywhere. A final orange and purple strip lies low above the vanishing horizon. I try not to acknowledge its beauty. To the east, the landscape is already indistinguishable in the darkness, and I worry. Mathew may be lost, fallen, hurt, scared - or worse – he may spend a night in the wild. I make rescue plans. It is good to have money. I am angry and frantic. I am haunted by my wife Teresa’s warning: "Don't come home alone." Five minutes pass. I ask a Haitian man in broken Creole if he has seen Austin and the boys. He points ahead, but I know that his response might be meaningless. I press on. Five more minutes have elapsed. I am at the bend in the road which is too far away from the Trueloves’ home. Perhaps they have taken one of the footpaths that disappear into the black and endless fields. Then, like apparitions rising, they are ahead of me, running toward me in the darkness. I am glad, relieved. The boys, ten of them, are leading sheep on ropes, and Mathew has one. I am pleased and proud. We head home, the children oblivious to my concern, now gone as if it never happened.
At six-fifteen a.m., Mathew laughs in his sleep, and a smile stays on his face. For breakfast, we are served a glass of milk with lime. It is sherbet-like and can be prepared with orange, tomato, mango or papaya. With it, we have my favorite breakfast, ti figue et legumes: spinach with eggplant, carrot, onion, tomato paste, oil and lime, served over boiled green bananas. Carol Ann asks that I take a family picture. Children are often left with the Trueloves, and occasionally they take custody of an abused infant. Their family changes often as girls and boys old enough for secondary school go to live and study in Môle-Saint-Nicolas.
Rushing outside to the road, in a hurry because school begins soon, Carol Ann trips and falls. She drops Geronord, a youngster whose feet have been amputated due to rot. He would have died but for George and Carol Ann, who were able to get U.S. military doctors to treat him during the recent occupation. The little boy is not hurt by their fall, but Carol Ann has cut her lips and eyelid. She asks me to reassure people that George does not beat her. And this is home for these two people, who found and made meaningful lives far in the depth of the third world… doing God’s work.Back to About