"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

photographers and haiti

The following post, written by The New York Times’s international picture editor, Patrick Witty, raises interesting and important questions.

“Photographers from across the globe descended on Haiti after the earthquake. As the death toll grew, more photographers arrived — some with a deep history of working in Haiti or in conflict zones, some with neither. Some photographers were sent on assignment, supported by the budgets of large news organizations. Some went on their own dime.

At one point there were almost certainly too many photographers in Haiti. But which point?

This question is scarcely new. It attends every war, every conflict; each famine, disaster and political upheaval.

‘I think it goes without saying that I believe it important that photographers are there to document the event,’ said Uriel Sinai, a photographer for Getty Images, who was there.

Few would disagree. But the scope of coverage in Haiti seems to exist on a different scale. Ron Haviv of the VII agency said that in times of crisis, Haiti is a ‘haven for photographers.’

‘Amazing story, people and images are there,’ said Mr. Haviv, who has been traveling to Haiti for 20 years and made pictures there after the earthquake. ‘Being so accessible and inexpensive has always led to an abundance — and sometimes overabundance — of photographers during the various coups, insurrections and natural disasters. Quite often during these times, it was normal for three to six photographers, plus the occasional TV crew, to be all working the same scene.’

Mr. Sinai acknowledged that ‘it feels awkward when you get to a scene of violence, tragedy, or chaos, et cetera, and there are more photographers around a subject than there are even people at the scene.’

‘When you are there in the moment, and there are photographers crawling all over the place, it simply feels weird,’ he said.
It’s worth noting that in troubled areas around the world — not just Haiti — numerous photographers often are in the same place at the same time, frequently traveling there together.

‘First and foremost, it’s an issue of safety,’ said David Gilkey, a photographer for NPR. But he does not see this as an impediment to good coverage. ‘Even though you are traveling with another photographer, you are almost never duplicating each other’s work,’ Mr. Gilkey said. ‘While two people may be looking at the same thing, they’re seeing it in different ways.’

More than a dozen photographers covered the landing of U.S. troops at the ruined National Palace on Jan. 19. The scene recalled a photograph by Alex Webb of American soldiers landing on the beach in Haiti in 1994, facing what looked like a battery of news photographers. This year, many photographers were drawn to a statue, untouched by the earthquake, standing solemnly amid the destruction.

There is no question a tragedy of this magnitude demands a thousand eyes or even more. But do they all have to be staring at the same thing? When does redundant become intrusive?

Some photographers drew the line at themselves. Despite having worked in Haiti many times, for instance, Christopher Anderson of Magnum decided to avoid the earthquake and its immediate aftermath. ‘I have never felt comfortable covering natural disasters,’ he said.

‘Wars and other types of human-made tragedies are different. There are questions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, political complications, et cetera. I feel like my voice as an observer has a purpose.

‘But with an earthquake or tsunami, I don’t have a purpose. There is no need for explanation or contemplation. There is only the immediate need for the news photographers to go and report what has happened.

‘I am not a news photographer. I would just be composing pictures of misery. Not to mention being another mouth to feed and another camera in the face of someone who has just lost everything. In the days and weeks immediately after something like this, all that matters is that the news pictures help drive a response of aid. I didn’t feel like there was anything I could add to that. They didn’t need me getting in the way.’

Paradoxically, the question could soon become: are there enough photographers covering Haiti?

As celebrity television journalists begin to leave and the spotlight on Haiti dims, photography, in many ways, becomes even more crucial. Lynsey Addario, who arrived in Haiti last month on assignment for The New York Times, said she felt conflict about not going just after the earthquake struck. But she realized that important stories will need to be told as the recovery continues.

‘While the first phase of the Haiti story is coming to an end, there is a whole new stage of people moving on with their lives, and trying to rebuild what they can in a totally shattered psychological and physical infrastructure,’ Ms. Addario said. ‘I sometimes feel I can be a more effective photographer, and do more in-depth coverage, if I do spend more time on stories without the pack, and choose subjects that I feel are lacking coverage.’

‘There will be many quiet, important features to do.’”


Anonymous said...

Hi Gloria,
You should wade deep into the comments of that post.
It appears that Whitty misquoted and took out of context a number of photographers to support his position. In fact he gave a 180 degree position to what they aactually said.
I know a number of them and they were quit upset about it.

Gloria Baker Feinstein said...

Thanks for pointing this out, Dan.

I have followed many conversations about this topic at lightstalkers.org. It's been interesting to hear the wide range of arguments for and against going to Haiti to document the events photographically, particularly those of us who are not affiliated with a news organization. I have grappled with this since day one. Chose not to go, but I still think about it every day.

For those of you who would like to read the comments to this NYT post, go here: