Haiti and Photography


General Culture, General Photography

From what I read and hear from people there seems to be a steadily growing discontent with the coverage of the Haiti earthquake. If I tried to assemble a list of links it would probably be incomplete, here are just two articles I came across that struck me as noteworthy (no doubt there are many more). Haiti coverage: ‘Disaster porn’? is a collection of links plus short summaries itself. More to the point of photography, Does Haiti’s Crisis Call for a New Photojournalism? is a very interesting piece by Michael David Murphy.

(updated below)

I can’t pretend I’ve come to some sort of final conclusion about this all. Just like everybody else I’m shocked by the sheer number or people killed and injured by the Haiti earthquake. I remember once it dawned on me what really happened, once I realized how bad it really was, I was trying to get more information, and I started looking at whatever I could find, including Anderson Cooper’s coverage. What struck me about many of the reports I found was that they basically left me in the state of helpless suspension I had found myself in, in particular Cooper’s coverage (which I stopped following after a couple of days).

On the one hand, it was able to appreciate to hear someone voice on TV the same things that I was thinking, on the other hand, seeing more and more of it left me just where I was, and it reinforced the feeling of not being able to help - besides donating money. And even donating money somehow did not feel as if it is enough: It’s such a huge disaster that many people already died or will still die even though so many organizations are there to help.

Maybe part of the reason why some people feel so strongly that what they’re seeing is “disaster porn” is because they reached the point where their frustration about being held in an unbearable state made them lash out. Other people might just stop watching or looking, because there literally is only so much you can take.

Of course, there is no simple solution to all of this. And of course, compared with what the people in Haiti have to go through right now, having to deal with being unable to help more is really just minor. But I’ve never thought that pointing out that some people have bigger problems is a particular constructive way to approach something.

Here’s the thing, Haiti will not be fine again tomorrow or the day after. Beyond tending to all the victims right now, it will require a major effort, probably for many years, to repair the damage and to help the country back on its feet. And for that the people of Haiti need our collective commitment beyond these initial weeks. Will they get it? Will people be willing to donate money so that schools can be (re)built? So that anti-poverty programs can be started?

I think there are actually two aspects of this whole complex, which are tied together. There is what happened right after the quake, and there is what will happen later. I think the role of the media is not just to deal with the former, but also with the latter, even during the very first days of such a disaster. For example, blowing reports of “looting” out of proportion clearly doesn’t help, does it? Why did we have to read about “security problems” in the very first few days after the earthquake - as if Haiti was just another place like downtown Baghdad? What kind of message did that send? About us and how we view the world?

Coming to photography, I’ll admit that I’ve felt a bit guilty about thinking that a lot of the photography coming out of Haiti has been, well… Michael’s piece makes a very strong argument that a lot of cliches have been used. I agree, you might not.

You could argue that it’s easy for me or Michael to complain about cliches, given that we’re not in Haiti. But that’s as useful an argument as pointing out that some people have bigger problems: It’s really just designed to prevent having a discussion.

Of course, the images we see have a lot to do with the environment photojournalism operates in - and with the fact that we all, let’s face it, are always looking for that one iconic image that will just (conveniently!) summarize everything. The one image that will stand for the story in the future, just like the Migrant Mother is the image of the Great Depression, the Russian soldiers raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag is the image for the end of WWII in Berlin, the fleeing burned Vietnamese child is the image of the Vietnam war, etc.

So maybe it’s not really just the photographers’ faults after all. Maybe it’s us demanding images that we can easily parse, images that essentially express our ideas of the Haiti earthquake? I mean you can’t blame the photographers for shooting images for the front pages of the very newspapers and magazines that our money will buy: With our wallets we are making decisions about the selections of images, aren’t we?

In the past, I posted a critique of the visual language of photojournalism, and maybe it’s time to look at things from the other end. I suppose this would be a good topic for a future post…

PS: My apologies to all the stories that I didn’t link to that addressed something I talked about here. I have been reading a lot, but unfortunately, I didn’t bookmark anything. I’m happy to add links to the above if you drop me a note.

Update (28 January 2010): Some stories relevant in this context: Holly Hughes’ The Problem with Pooling Haiti Coverage; Are Haiti pictures too graphic?; Pete argues that Haitian photographer Daniel Morel is the most credible on site.