On the ground in Haiti: “It’s dangerous to divorce myself from the human aspect”

While seeing and smelling dead bodies and working amid the destruction, Gazette photojournalist Phil Carpenter reminded himself at all times that his photo subjects are people first.

(Read Sue Montgomery’s companion piece.)

The morning after the earthquake hit, I got a call from the acting
photo editor asking if I’d like to go to Haiti. I said yes, to which he
replied that someone would call to confirm the trip. I was skeptical,
but an hour later I received confirmation that the trip was on.

My first challenge was deciding what to bring along, with only four
hours notice. Packing clothes, sleeping gear (it was a disaster area
after all) and toiletries is one thing. That was the easy part. But I’m
a visual journalist whose job description now includes telling stories
with video in addition to still pictures. I had to guess, based on
experience and the needs of the paper, how many cameras to bring, which
lenses, flash, video camera, microphone and remote and so on. Plus I
had to find a way to file daily from a place where there would likely
be no electricity and no Internet. That meant packing extra batteries
for everything and finding a satellite phone. Then I had to figure out
how to pack so that all my gear would fit as carry-on luggage.

I never ever check my gear
when I fly for work. I want to be able to work once I hit the ground
and having my gear delayed or lost is something I cannot abide.  

In the end, I decided to bring two Canon Mk3 still cameras with two
batteries for each, a Canon 70-200 mm 2.8 lens, a Canon 17-35 mm 2.8
lens, a Canon flash with 40 extra batteries, a 15-inch Macbook Pro, a
500G LaCie external hard drive, a Sony EX1 video camera, four Sony SXS
Pro 8G cards, a Rhodes shotgun mic, a Sennheiser lavalier mic and a
windsock. In addition, there were various cables, chargers, locks,
memory cards, cleaning materials and padded cases for most, and all
except my flash was packed as carry-on luggage.

Once packed, I raced to the office, picked up extra batteries and got a
cash advance for myself and colleague Sue Montgomery, who was already
at the airport. (First mistake: In the rush, I didn’t count the cash
they had given us.) I hailed a taxi and made it to the airport at 12:30
p.m. for the 3 p.m. flight. With all the new security concerns since
the attempted Christmas Day bombing, we were very fortunate that the
lineup for check-in and security screening was very, very short.

We flew through Newark, N.J., and I believe it was there that we
finally opened our envelopes of cash to discover that we were given
only US $1,500 each. Sue blames herself for not being more specific
about how much cash we would need when she asked for it; I blame myself
for not counting it before I left the office. In any case, we both
agreed that we needed at least another US $5,000, because without power
there was no way we would be able to use credit cards in Haiti and we
had no idea for how long we would be there.

As there were no flights to Port-au-Prince, we had to fly to Santo
Domingo in the Dominican Republic and it was up to us to figure out how
to get to Haiti from there. On the flight to Santo Domingo, which was
packed with journalists and aid workers, I got to talking with a fixer
for a German TV crew a and crew from CBS. All of us had the same
problem: how to get to Haiti from the DR. Security was a main concern
and earlier when I had suggested to Sue that we rent a car in the DR;
she rightly said that we wouldn’t have been allowed to take it across
the border.

This question was raised in my conversation with the TV people; some
said they had done it before and that it was possible; others said it
was too dangerous to drive, especially that night, and spoke about the
risks of carjacking. The fixer for the German crew said they might even
rent a boat and offered to take us with them.

Before we left, Gazette staff said they were trying to rent a plane for
us in the DR and spoke of the possibility of sharing the cost with
other Canadian news organizations. It was extremely difficult to find
any kind of aircraft to rent, since so many people were trying to get
into Haiti, and we were told not to expect any news before the next

We landed in the DR about an hour late that night. I had a contact
there, thanks to a Montreal friend, who met us at the airport, took us
to our hotel that night and we asked him to pick us up the next
morning. This guy, a member of the DR military, met us at the gate,
whisked us through immigration, customs and past the lineups. (Read Sue
Montgomery’s companion piece for details on how we eventually made it
to Port-au-Prince.)

Phil CarpenterTwo days after the quake, I was on the streets of Haiti shooting. I
wasn’t sure how I would react to seeing or smelling a lot of dead
bodies or how I would cover this tragedy. I knew I had to show the
destruction but, more importantly, I wanted to show the human cost of
something that didn’t have to be. I also wanted to make good pictures —
good in terms of light and composition and seizing the right moment.
For video stories, I wanted to make sure that had a good focus, that I
had good sound, that I asked good questions during interviews. With all
this to consider, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of seeing the
people in this tragedy as just elements or components in the
construction of a story. Mere subjects.

To dehumanize them like this is one way to cope with the unpleasantness
of it, I suppose, but for me it’s dangerous to divorce myself from the
human aspect.

For all the shooting that I did, I constantly reminded myself that
these are people. I tried not to be in anyone’s face with a lens unless
it was absolutely required and, when I could, I asked permission of the
person before making a picture. If someone was clearly uncomfortable
with me making the picture, I walked away. Our fixer couldn’t
understand it but there it is.

I tried to remind myself at all times that they are people first, not
subjects. They are more than just design elements in a composition.
That said, I had to make good pictures. As a visual journalist
documenting a human tragedy, I still had a responsibility to do good
photojournalism, and so I tried to do just that. I never censored my
photography based on the graphic nature of a scene. In my mind I had a
“responsibility to report” and sugar-coating my coverage was not an
option. Of course, not all the pictures would be published in the
paper, but I knew those that were too graphic could likely be used on
the paper’s website.

It was very difficult to make good pictures and shoot good video
stories in this case. Usually I have little problem doing both, but the
nature of this tragedy felt to me like it could be best told with still
images. It wasn’t until the second day that I felt the urge to shoot
video. A few of us were walking from the Canadian embassy to a hospital
where Canadians were helping to treat hundreds who were injured in the
quake. Suddenly there was a horrible wailing coming from across the
street. We couldn’t see who it was but it was clear that it was more
than one person.

Some bodies had just been found in the rubble of a collapsed building
and some family members were weeping. That sound for me for the first
time summed up the pain of the human cost and the only way for me to
share that was through video.

The problem of deciding when to shoot video or stills plagued me for
the rest of my time there, with the result that I don’t think I got
enough of either. It was for that reason that I wanted to stay an extra
week shooting video exclusively, but, alas, my employer thought it best
for my mental health I guess that I didn’t stay longer. It goes without
saying of course, that I disagree with that assessment.

Phil Carpenter is a photojournalist with the Montreal Gazette.

(Image courtesy of Phil Carpenter and the Montreal Gazette.)