Blue Helmets and Kevlar Vests-
I never planned to find myself wearing a bulletproof vest standing behind an armored vehicle in the middle of Port au Prince ducking for cover. But one morning I received an IM from a friend working for the United Nations in Haiti during the 2004 crisis, she offered me a week under U.N. auspices. I would have to make a decision on the spot because within the week they would close down access for journalists. I paused to take in the offer as I stared at the blinking curser in the dialog box...This trip would not have been possible without the help of Myrna Dormit and photographer Sophia Paris.
I arrived in October of 2004, the year Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted from office, and shortly after Hurricane Jeanne reaped its destruction. Aristide’s administration was wrought with charges of human rights violations, corruption and severe poverty. Haitian society had been crippled for months by heavy violence from a former gang called the “Cannibal Army” now operating under the name of “The National Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Haiti”. While there I spent time traveling with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), going on patrol in Port Au Prince with the Brazilian Marines to the pro-Aristide slums of Cite Soléil and Bel Air and flying in a Mi-8 into Gonaïves, and Cap- Haitian. During this time I also visited an orphanage on the outskirts of the city and spent a day walking through Port-au-Prince on my own.
I had never traveled to a war zone, but I chose to pack light and simple. I packed 15 rolls of Ilford HP 400, 10 Fujichrome Velvia, 2 Nikon N8008 bodies, 22mm lens, 33-105mm and 2 red filters. I prefer shooting 35mm.
Our movement was restricted and any travel outside of U.N. areas had to be authorized and provided with proper security. When on patrols with the marines we generally had to stay in the vicinity of the troops or within the perimeter of the secured area. This hampered my normal process of shooting because I wasn’t used to working under such conspicuous conditions. Not only was I wearing a bright blue helmet and Kevlar vest but I was surrounded by young men with big guns standing in front of even bigger armored vehicles. Normally I like to affect the least amount of change possible on my environment by assimilating into it, shooting intimate moments when people lower their guard. To accomplish this I hide in plain sight, so to speak. I try to move through the streets as any local would, occasionally engaging with my environment and never pressing for a picture, blending into my surroundings.
When traveling to foreign countries, especially in areas of poverty or economic duress it’s easy to stick out and be perceived as a possible victim or a threat, both of which aren’t conducive to taking intimate and observatory photography. Your body language becomes very important and feeling (or at least seeming) comfortable in your surroundings goes a long way in easing tensions, especially when you aren’t fluent in the local language. Sometimes I’ll spend ages in one location, sitting near one subject just to get the right shot, other times I walk away when the camera creates a tension between me and the subject that I do not like in my work.
Although I shoot primarily on manual, I keep my camera set to automatic and at f5.6 in between shots. Theoretically this allows me to be ready for those fleeting moments we always regret missing. Tensions were naturally high among locals when we were around. I tried to portray the discomfort that our presence created but was amazed at how adverse people became at having their picture taken as opposed to when I travel by myself. I stopped being a bystander and a casual observer, and to my dismay became an intruder documenting with force. People became victims of my camera rather than me becoming a witness of their struggles.
When observing humanity pushed to such extremes your emotions are all over the place, like a roller coaster plunging and climbing, rarely reaching hope. In its place, adrenaline keeps you going when energy fades. I found few cues for optimism until I joined the Canadian CivPol at an orphanage on the outskirts of Port au Prince. Here I finally saw what I was looking for: a little hope, a reason to not give up and forsake humanity. I saw in the children an innocence that had not had the opportunity to be polluted by fear, violence and poverty. Their ability to feel joy and hope, to play and dance reminded me that there was something left to save and it was hiding within the children. This was the highlight of an exciting and eye opening experience