Still-Lifes of Haiti, Much Too Still

A year ago today, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, killing 220,000 people and leaving 1.5 million homeless. Wyatt Gallery,

A year ago today, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, killing 220,000 people and leaving 1.5 million homeless. Wyatt Gallery, an American photographer who was on assignment in Curacao when he heard about the quake, says he “felt an urgent, powerful calling to help Haiti.” That desire to help, as sincere as it is self-involved, resulted in two brief visits to Port-au-Prince, a book of photographs called Tent Life, and an exhibition now up at the Umbrage Gallery in Dumbo. Royalties from the book will benefit several nongovernmental organizations operating in Haiti, including the one run by Sean Penn.

Like many foreigners–blan, Haitians call us, a word adapted from the French for “white”–Mr. Gallery says he was deeply affected by the resilience, strength and spirit of poor people living in squalor. Like many blan, he nonetheless did not stay in Haiti long–10 days, perhaps. Also like many blan, he wrote in his journal on the plane home. “I feel that documenting these tragic living conditions is my calling,” he wrote. “In my heart, these are my people, and the Caribbean is my home.”

Excepting Edwidge Danticat’s lovely introduction, the sparse text in Tent Life reads as shameless self-indulgence. If I am not nearly as gracious as the displaced Haitians who allowed Mr. Gallery to photograph them in their tents, so be it. Mr. Gallery’s photographs, though sometimes beautiful and probably well intentioned, are as platitudinous as his words. Publicity materials insist that the portraits depict people “surviving, living, working, and vehemently not waiting for others to determine their fate.” I wish I could agree. To me, rather, the photographs suggest a passive and, ultimately, boring nation.

Maybe this is because of the many portraits of people sitting still, often alone. Here, an adorable, barefoot girl sits in a spacious white tent, flooded with light; her knee is dusty, her cheek rests sweetly on her fist and she wears an equivocal smile. There, a tiny, ancient woman with a head scarf and a dingy housedress that showcases a too-prominent sternum waits for water. Aside from such portraits, there are naked kids, muddy roads, garbage piles and empty tents bathed in the colored light (“Blue Tent Interior, Airport Camp,” is one caption).

These are pretty photos, sure. But perhaps what’s most remarkable about Mr. Gallery’s Haiti is that hardly anyone is doing anything. In Mr. Gallery’s photographs, you will not see Haitians dancing, protesting, shoveling rubble, screaming at a cockfight, playing the numbers, courting death as they cross the street, doing hair, cooking, marketing, selling, drumming, soliciting, hawking, harassing, debating, slapping down dominoes, eating, flirting, washing, studying. Individual personality is difficult to discern–and, indeed, like countless numbers of earthquake dead, most of Mr. Gallery’s subjects are unnamed.

Rather than names or actions, what defines the Haitians in Tent Life is their victimhood: They are the impoverished displaced, trapped in tents, doing nothing, possessed of little. One photograph, showing another head-scarfed woman under a tarp with a couple of chairs, a bucket, some blankets and carpet, is labeled “Everything She Owns, Delmas 31.”

But in this regard, Mr. Gallery is no different than many of the blan journalists who flew in after the earthquake and left once the bodies on street corners were finally hauled away by dump trucks. As incomprehensible as the earthquake seemed (poor Haiti, can’t that little country catch a break?), it was, in truth, easily digestible. Suffering wrought on a blameless people is easy to understand, even profitable.

Thus, Americans opened their hearts and their wallets; nearly half of them donated to relief and recovery efforts. Nongovernmental organizations that had never operated in Haiti, such as Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee, hastened to aid in the relief efforts–and win donations and lucrative contracts. And news organizations, sniffing prizes and profits, invested heavily in covering the tragedy. They flooded the tiny country with more reporters and photographers than it had probably seen in its history.

What happened over the rest of 2010 was harder for the world to digest. Why was the pace of reconstruction so slow, despite the billions of dollars pledged to help Haiti? Why had so little rubble been removed from the streets? Why were more than a million Haitians still living under tents and tarps, and why wasn’t anyone doing anything about it? Why wasn’t awareness of suffering enough to end it?

As journalists parachute in for the soi-disant anniversary of the quake this week in an attempt to answer some of these questions, many will point fingers. Rich countries haven’t made good on their promises. Big aid agencies haven’t spent enough of their money. Or, worse, Haiti is irredeemably screwed up, impervious to being fixed.

I expect that few of them will delve into the underlying causes of Haiti’s post-quake stagnation. These are political, involving highly charged issues such as land rights, aid allocations and administrative control over NGOs. Understanding them requires looking at Haitians as political actors–as voters, as abstainers, as protesters and as government officials. If you’re used to thinking about Haiti, even subconsciously, as a passive recipient of aid or sympathy or disaster, it’s a difficult paradigm shift.

I suspect this is why so few international journalists seriously covered the election held on Nov. 28. In the months prior, the unpopular ruling party had spent ostentatiously on the campaign of the president’s candidate, a heretofore little known engineer named Jude Celestin. It blanketed the country with billboards and commandeered low-flying airplanes to drop leaflets at rallies whose participants were paid to attend. When election day rolled around, countless numbers of voters were disenfranchised by disorganization. Their voting cards hadn’t been ready on time; they couldn’t find their names on voter rolls; or ballots never arrived at polling stations. And yet, the Organization of American States’ team of observers appeared to endorse the voting.

A month ago, when the electoral council announced preliminary results of the first round that favored Mr. Celestin, the country erupted in days of protests that shut down cities. One year after the quake, Haiti is in the grips of a political crisis that, unless resolved, will delay reconstruction for many more months and leave Mr. Gallery’s subjects languishing in their “tragic living conditions” for months, if not years, to come.

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Ms. Bhatia is a writer who has lived in Haiti since 2007.

  Still-Lifes of Haiti, Much Too Still