Haiti's Disaster

Compassion for your subjects is a necessity for photojournalists.

This article appeared in News Photographer Magazine in March of 2010.

 For those who have been devoted to covering the impoverished nation for many years, Haiti is a long-term commitment – not a student workshop opportunity.

By Steve Raymer

Several generations of photographers have found Haiti a compelling story with its heartbreaking jumble of natural disasters, coups d’états, United States military interventions, environmental degradation, and public health calamities like HIV-AIDS – all rendered in richly saturated colors that remind us of the work of French painter Paul Gauguin in the tropics. What’s more, Haiti is close, at America’s backdoor in the Caribbean. And with more than a half-million people of Haitian descent living and working in the United States, Haiti is local news in cities like New York and Miami.

So it was no surprise that the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that leveled much of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, in January summoned photojournalists from around the world to document the deaths of some 230,000 persons, the dramatic rescues, the injured, the heroism of doctors and nurses, the mourning, the orphans, the looting, and one more U. S. military intervention – this time to bring security, food, water, and medical care on a massive scale to the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Heavyweight shooters like Damon Winter and Lynsey Addario of The New York Times, Carolyn Cole of the Los Angeles Times, Carol Guzy and Nikki Khan of The Washington Post, James Nachtwey shooting for Time, Dominic Nahr for the Wall Street Journal, Peter Turnley for The Atlantic, and Ron Haviv of the VII agency were some of the first to arrive. And their images broke our hearts one more time.

What we were unprepared for was an online offer of a $4,000 workshop in photographing disaster in Haiti – or for dozens of students and other freelance photographers who traveled to Haiti to build portfolios and make dramatic pictures in the hope of winning contests. I photographed human suffering in famines in Bangladesh and Ethiopia and natural disasters on four continents, so the idea of young photographers going to any of the world’s hotspots without training, logistical support to sustain and ensure their success, and an assignment for a publication or Web site strikes me as crass and ultimately unworthy of journalism. That a few university journalism professors would encourage this, or organize fieldtrips around humanitarian nightmares, is simply naive.

“Taking students to any disaster or telling students that they need to go to a disaster to build a portfolio is foolish,” says Terry Eiler, director of the Ohio University School of Visual Communication at Athens. “It sends all the wrong messages about what visual journalist are doing at disasters. It confirms the public’s worst fears about coverage.”

 And Eiler, who worries about a university’s liability for students on fieldtrips to any hotspot, is hardly alone in condemning the practice of building portfolios on the backs of Third World innocents. “This smacks of exploitation of others' misery, so comparatively wealthy and comfortable foreign post-adolescents can sharpen their professional skills,” says professor Trevor Brown of Columbia University in New York. “No doubt it will be argued that this fortuitous educational exercise will also develop their ethical sensibility and empathy. They will not only become finer journalists, but also finer human beings. If I understand the purpose of these trips, it's not to inform the world through news, information, and images so that the world can better respond to the needs of Haitians. The purpose is apparently mainly to attend to the needs of these students.”

One of the nation’s leading authorities on media ethics, professor David Boeyink of Indiana University, sees “the human tragedy of Haiti as a bad choice for student learning” – at least for now. Boeyink, who earned a doctorate at Harvard Divinity School and has worked for years among the poorest of the poor in Central America, thinks a better idea would be for educators to prepare students professionally and emotionally to report on a story like the Haitian recovery effort “six months or a year from now when the attention of the world, likely having drifted to the next crisis, will need to be brought back to Haiti's ongoing struggles.” This would insure that students stay out of the way of critical relief efforts and, in Boeyink’s view, could serve “an important journalistic purpose other media organizations may miss.”

Editors and photographers with years of experience in covering disasters also have weighed in on the debate about self-assigned photographers, many of them students or right out of universities, flocking to natural disasters, whether they are in Haiti, China, Indonesia, or New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina in 2005 attracted student reporters and photographers from around the country, including my own university.

“First, do no harm,” says Frank Folwell, a former assistant managing editor at USA Today in Arlington, VA. While photographers on the ground in Port-au-Prince report food and transportation are readily available for those with wads of U.S. dollars, Folwell thinks “voyeur photographers” only strain an already overtaxed system. “Where would a group of students live?” asks Folwell. “If they are in a tent, that tent would better serve a Haitian family which has been living outdoors for a month. What would they eat? Their rations could go to Haitians who have had no good food for a month.”

Pulitzer Prize-winner Michel du Cille, the Washington Post’s director of photo/multimedia/video, is no stranger to trouble, having covered the U. S. invasion of Grenada and wars in the Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. (Du Cille and I also reported on the 1985 explosion of Nevado del Ruiz, a Columbian volcano that killed 23,000 people in the ensuring mudslide.) So in my book, his words carry extra meaning.

“Experience at dealing with human drama begins at home,” says du Cille, who advises aspiring visual journalists to first learn to shoot local news under the guidance of editors or professors – professionals who can help young people channel their emotions into meaningful images. “So many times I have been to disaster zones where the novice has no clue and they seem to just grovel in the scene of being there, rubbing elbows with the so-called star shooters.”

A better idea, du Cille suggests, would be for a university journalism program to organize a trip to Haiti, or another underreported country, as a book project to help the poor or disaster stricken – or as a fundraiser for a nongovernmental organization (NGO). “This would seem more worthy to use the disaster as a teaching moment for photography and for humanity.”

That said, the days of massive, saturation coverage of natural disasters by staff photographers representing major newspapers, magazines, and news agencies are long-since over. Staff downsizings mean there are fewer professional eyes witnessing the earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and famines that kill thousands and leave thousands more destitute every year. Inevitably independent, or freelance photographers – some of them very young and with mixed motives – are going to fill the gap. And some are going to get their pictures published, reminding a fickle world of the suffering of the poorest among us and that there is always a dollar to be made by the enterprising.

“Photographers' motives are key in their work,” says award-winning photographer Jodi Cobb, a National Geographer staffer for more than 30 years. “What is the purpose of the photograph, what is it meant to do, to communicate? And to whom?” These are the questions all photojournalists, not just the young or the naive, need to ask themselves. And especially when people’s lives are at stake.

Steve Raymer, a former National Geographic magazine staff photographer, reported from Haiti several times for the Geographic during the 1980s. He is now a professor at Indiana University School of Journalism.