Magazine

The photos stopping people in the street

  • 23 January 2015
  • From the section Magazine
A woman covered in dust after the earthquake Image copyright Daniel Morel

When an earthquake in Haiti killed about 250,000 people and left many more homeless, photographer Daniel Morel was there. To mark the anniversary and acknowledge how people are still struggling, he's opened an exhibition on the capital's streets.

On the day before the fifth anniversary of Haiti's horrific earthquake, the photojournalist Daniel Morel sits at a battered plywood table in a cinder-block (also known as breeze-block) yard off the Boulevard Jean Jacques Dessalines in Port-au-Prince, surrounded by stacks of photos.

This is a bitterly poor district of dusty, winding alleys and tin-roofed shacks, an inner-city favela, really. Down the block, in the middle of the street, a large burning pile of tyres spews a thick, pulsating cloud of acrid black smoke into the hot Caribbean sky, indicating that anti-government demonstrations, which have been growing in intensity since October, recently passed this way. Haiti is in the middle of yet another political crisis.

But in the tidy courtyard belonging to Atis Rezistans, a community collective of artists who make fantastic sculptures out of the discarded metal, tyres and car parts of their neighbourhood, the cinderblock walls are lined with clean sheets of plywood, painted black. At one end hangs an enormous 3m by 4m mural print of two anguished and screaming men, carrying a third.

On the adjacent walls are dozens of images depicting the hellish chaos in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake: pancaked buildings, smoke and flames, the distraught cement-streaked faces of survivors, desperately working to extract friends from the rubble.

At 63, Morel, with wild salt-and-pepper dreadlocks sprouting in multiple directions from his head, is mounting a major photography exhibition in the neighbourhood.

He was in this same courtyard five years ago, when the ground started to shake. "It was like a wave, going up and down, up and down," he says. "At first I didn't know what it was - there was a terrifying noise, but at the same time the earth was moving."

In the devastated Grand Rue, Morel was the sole representative of the world's press, surrounded by confusion, smoke, fear, and a flowing river of traumatized Haitians.

The pictures he took in the hour before sunset became the most famous, and also notorious, of his 30-year career. The next day they appeared on the covers of newspapers around the globe, but only after they had been stolen off the internet and distributed without Morel's permission.

Image copyright Daniel Morel
Image copyright Daniel Morel

On a walk through downtown Port-au-Prince today it is hard to see much impact from the vast sums that were donated by people all over the world, via flashing banner ads posted on the websites of big NGOs, begging for help for Haiti, promoting the urgent need.

There are the same reeking, garbage-clogged canals and fetid piles of organic refuse, the same lack of basic services that make life for residents of the Grand Rue and areas like it a brutal, constant struggle for life and dignity.

"Where is all the money?" Morel asks me, rhetorically. So often it is spent without including the Haitians who are meant to benefit, and without involving them in questions vital to their own destiny. The way Morel's images were taken from him seems to me like a kind of a metaphor for the shortcomings of the international aid machine, and one reason he put the show on here - "for the Haitian people," as he puts it.

Many of those who came to Morel's opening had never been to a photography exhibition before, and they stood transfixed, pointing out friends and neighbours they recognized in the images, discussing wounds and injuries, and reflecting on those they had lost.

The courtyard quickly filled with people, and at 16:53, the precise moment of the earthquake, Morel called for a minute of silent remembrance. It was an exercise in historical memory, cathartic rather than mournful.

The photos glittered on the wall, and even the gutters of the Grand Rue in front of the entrance had been swept and tidied. "I hope my people open their eyes," Morel said. "Foreigners cannot change their lives, they have to change their own lives."

Later, asked how he thought it had gone, he told a story.

"The other day, I was sitting here when I saw a shoeshine man walk in and look at those photos, with so much interest, it was like a dream come true. Because in Haiti, he is the lowest category of human being. It's the worst work you can do in this society. Can you imagine, you have to carry a box, you walk for miles and miles to make $2 or $1?

"When I saw that guy walk in here, first of all he knew he had the right to come here, freely, to look at those pictures. That guy carried his shoeshine box in here to look. I tell you, seeing that was worth everything I did."

Image caption Daniel Morel was born in Haiti in 1951 - he has won numerous awards for his work

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