TIME Behind the Photos

Haiti: Photographers’ Love Affairs With a Country on the Brink

Haiti is country full of paradoxes – one that has inspired many photographers over the last 50 years

For decades, as Haiti has weathered political upheavals, coups d’état, economic crises and natural catastrophes—including the devastating earthquake that killed more than 160,000 people in 2010—photographers have nurtured an enduring, and at times tense, relationship with the small Caribbean country.

Haiti’s vibrant society, pulsating energy and stunning light, combined with its tragic and violent history, consistently attract photographers of all ages and nationalities. Many of them are inspired by Alex Webb’s seminal work Under a Grudging Sun, which continues, to this day, to influence their aesthetics.

Webb’s first trip to Haiti, back in 1975, transformed him—both as a photographer and as a human being. “I photographed a kind of world I had never experienced before, a world of emotional vibrancy and intensity: raw, disjointed, sometimes beautiful, often tragic,” he tells TIME. “I encountered a world that kept drawing me back, again and again.”

“I have this idea that Haiti chooses you,” echoes photographer Maggie Steber, who first visited the country 35 years ago. “If she doesn’t want you there, she will do everything in her power to make you run screaming for the next plane out of there. But if she likes you, if she recognizes in you a kindred spirit, she doesn’t let you go and she wrings your heart out every day. She uses you up.” Steber’s first experience with Haiti came when she moved to New York after living in Africa; she was missing living abroad and Sipa’s director Gökşin Sipahioğlu suggested that Haiti might satisfy that craving. She arrived just when President Jean-Claude Duvalier fell in a coup d’état.

“Then, everything exploded. It was thrilling. It was exciting. There was so much happening,” she recalls. “For the first time, people could really speak their mind. It was a country finally letting go after taking this deep breath. To me, that’s when the story really started to unfold. That’s when I was spellbound by it.”

When Bruce Gilden first landed in Haiti in 1984, he rented a car with his first wife and, as he was driving to the hotel, he turned to her and said: “Where have I been my whole life?” Since then, Gilden has made 22 visits to the country. “Every time I’d go, I’d find something else to photograph,” he says. The stunning light hooked him first, but the reason he returned so often was all about the people. “They love me and I love them,” he says. “They are my people.”

Together, these photographers and many of their contemporaries have shot, published and exhibited thousands of images of Haiti—many of them with the stated goal of contributing to the dialogue about this “complicated country that has had such a difficult and tragic history,” says Webb. And yet, five years after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed large parts of Haiti and brought unprecedented attention to the country with billions of dollars of aid pledged and hundreds of NGOs setting up operations there, the situation remains grim, calling into question the photographers’ roles.

See how Haitian photographer Daniel Morel, one of the first photographers on the scene, covered the 2010 earthquake.

The deep connection many photographers feel when they first visit Haiti battles against the frustration many of them feel for a country that doesn’t seem to be able to escape its cruel fate.

“I do feel a frustration because every time Haitians try to take a step forward, something happens that sends them back two steps,” Steber tells TIME. “I think it’s frustrating for a lot of photographers.” For the Miami-based photographer, Haiti’s troubled situation can be traced back to the country’s slave revolt in the early 1800s. “Haiti had the only successful slave uprising at a time when the whole world’s economy was rotating around slaves, so the world turned its back on Haiti,” she says. “In a way, Haiti seems to have been punished by fate.”

In the last five years, the number of photographers visiting the small Caribbean country has surged, coinciding with the flock of NGOs pledging to help Haitians recover from the earthquake. While the organizations “are absolutely vital in moments of crisis or natural disaster,” says Institute photographer Paolo Woods, the situation in 2015 tends to show that in the long-term, NGOs’ impact on the country remains ambiguous. “I’m often asked what’s the difference between before and after the earthquake,” Gilden adds. “There’s no difference. Haiti is poor and nobody cares.”

That’s a problem that hits home with photographers too. Though their goal is not the same as NGOs’, the nation’s poverty is ostensibly on display in their work, and they wrestle with how to show that world without harming the people in it. Photography that is not carefully considered can contribute, at times, to the reinforcement of stereotypes frequently applied to developing countries across the globe, from Africa to Latin America to Asia.

“As photographers, we tend to go to places with our eyes and brains already full of images, and very often, unfortunately, we try to confirm those images,” says Paolo Woods, who moved to Haiti five years ago to work on his book State. The photographer doesn’t deny that Haiti is crippled by its unstable political situation and deep-rooted poverty, but, he says, that’s only one side of the story. “When you look at images from Haiti, you get this impression of a country that’s very far away from what it actually is,” he says. “For me, it was just a matter of looking around [to find other stories to tell.]”

Woods only had to look around his hotel, where he stayed during his first month in Haiti, to find his story—one that centers on Haiti’s rich, upper-class population. “It was in December 2010, and we were getting close to the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, so a lot of journalists had come back to Haiti to do a story,” he says. “At that time, I was still living in a hotel in Port-au-Prince where a lot of media people gathered. What astonished me was that in this nice hotel, with working wifi and a swimming pool, you’d have all these photographers getting on motorbikes in the morning to go to Cité Soleil [one of the country’s poorest slums], take hundreds of images, and then come back to the hotel without ever looking at anything else.”

In the same hotel, in its lobby, restaurant and swimming pool, rich Haitians would come to wine and dine. “I thought this was interesting,” says Woods. “Who are these people? How did they make their money? How do they spend it? That became one of the multiple stories that built my book State.”

In his photographs, Gilden has tried to steer clear of the conflicts and the political mess, focusing, instead, on the everyday life of Haitians, whom, he says, he cares deeply about. Yet, his goal was never to change their lives. “I know [photographers] can’t change the world. If [we could], things would not be the same as they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago or 50 years ago.”

Some photographers—Steber and Woods included—have started looking for ways to give back to Haitians, often through photographic workshops. “I teach photography with the goal of encouraging education and to empower Haitians,” says Steber. “We leave the cameras behind and we come back to teach them again and again. It’s about training them to re-seize their country, to appreciate it and to see the possibilities for themselves.”

For Woods, it’s also a way to allow Haiti to be defined, photographically, by its own people. “I often get calls from NGOs, and I always try to refer them to Haitian photographers,” he says. “It makes a lot more sense. I think a country is healthy when its own citizens can tell its story.”

Certainly, Haiti, which is just a two-hour, $200 flight away from Florida, will continue to charm, attract and inspire photographers to produce “significant and deeply committed work, ranging from classical photojournalism to highly interpretive photography,” says Webb. And not just because “the country is poor, or has horrific political violence,” he adds. “There is something about the intense sense of life intertwined with the perpetual presence of death that courses through the society; something about the vibrancy of the people alongside the tragedy of their circumstances; something about a kind of beauty that co-exists with pain and sorrow. Trying to somehow come to terms with such paradoxes may well be a clue as to why the country has inspired—and continues to inspire—photographers as well as writers.”

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s International Photo Editor.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 12

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. On the fifth anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, political strife is still the greatest obstacle to recovery.

By Jacqueline Charles in the Miami Herald

2. The U.S. uses economic sanctions because they don’t require a global coalition to work. But they may inflict damage beyond the intended target.

By Paul Richter in the Los Angeles Times

3. With deepening partisanship becoming the norm, don’t look to the states for new ideas.

By Aaron Chatterji in the New York Times

4. Juries could use virtual reality headsets to ‘visit’ crime scenes.

By Jessica Hamzelou in New Scientist

5. A new waterproof solar lantern is helping reduce deaths from burning fuel indoors for the world’s 1.2 billion living without electric light.

By Michael Zelenko in the Verge

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME natural disaster

Five Years Later, See TIME’s Coverage of the Haiti Earthquake

Haiti cover
The Jan. 25, 2010, cover of TIME PHOTOGRAPHS BY IVANOH DEMERS/MONTREAL LA PRESSE/AP

The earthquake devastated a nation that was on the verge of achieving long-term economic and political stability

Five years ago on Monday, just as the Caribbean nation of Haiti was beginning to stand on solid footing, the ground beneath it shook. The tremor flattened buildings and killed more than 200,000 people, bringing to a halt the country’s slow but encouraging progress toward economic and political stability.

“Tragedy has a way of visiting those who can bear it least,” TIME’s Michael Elliott observed shortly after, reporting on the earthquake. By then, the devastation wrought by the tremor was coming into focus. The capital city of Port-au-Prince, just 15 miles from the epicenter, had been largely leveled; the National Palace and the city’s cathedral were destroyed; and aid workers were already pleading for international help with messages like this email from Louise Ivers, clinical director for Haiti for the NGO Partners in Health: “Port-au-Prince is devastated, lot of deaths. SOS. SOS … Please help us.”

Support did flow in, in the form of aid workers, foreign aid, and more than $1 billion in charity. But the earthquake set back years of development work in the impoverished country. As TIME reported:

What makes the earthquake especially ‘cruel and incomprehensible,’ as U.S. President Barack Obama put it, was that it struck at a rare moment of optimism. After decades of natural and political catastrophes, the U.N. peacekeeping force and an international investment campaign headed by former President Bill Clinton, the U.N.’s special envoy to Haiti, had recently begun to calm and rebuild the nation.

Starting from scratch, the post-earthquake rebuilding process has made headway. Rubble that covered the ground and blocked transit routes, one of the most tangible signs of the country’s slow recovery in the months after the earthquake, has now largely been cleared. Infrastructure, including a new airport, has been rebuilt. And the number of people living in makeshift tent homes has dropped from some 1.5 million to 70,000, Harry Adam, head of the Department for Construction of Housing and Public Buildings told AFP.

But Haiti, which still hosts the U.N. peacekeeping force known as MINUSTAH (the French acronym for the mission), has a long path ahead. On Friday, the United Nations issued a grim warning of the risks facing the country, the poorest in the western hemisphere. “Persistent chronic poverty and inequality, environmental degradation and continuing political uncertainty threaten achievements Haitians have made over the past five years,” Wendy Bigham, the World Food Programme’s representative in Haiti, said in a statement. Meanwhile, an ongoing political crisis over long-overdue elections has slowed critical recovery efforts and threatens to devolve further. Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, largely credited with overseeing much of the nation’s reconstruction since he took office in 2012, resigned last month amid mass street protests, but his departure has failed to lead to political compromise.

In a statement Wednesday that highlighted the consequences of political instability, the U.N. called for a political compromise by the end of the week “in order to strengthen stability, preserve the democratic gains and ensure sustainable development in Haiti.” Five year’s after the earthquake, Haiti can still scarcely bear more turmoil.

Browse TIME’s special issue about the Haiti earthquake: Haiti’s Tragedy

TIME portfolio

Haiti Earthquake: Five Years After

Haiti continues to feel the effects of the devastating 2010 earthquake

On Jan. 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck Haiti, killing more than 160,000 and displacing close to 1.5 million people. Five year later, scars of the tragedy remain in Port-au-Prince, says photographer Gael Turine, who has spent the last 10 years photographing the country.

“When you walk around the country’s capital Port-au-Prince, you still see half-destroyed buildings around town,” he tells TIME. “The wounds are still here, and everyone says that they’re living in worse conditions than before.”

Given the costs of recovery from such a shattering catastrophe, it might seem logical that an impoverished country such as Haiti would still feel the effects a half-decade later, if it weren’t for the unprecedented help the Republic received in its aftermath. “When you look at the history of humanitarian relief, there’s never been a situation when such a small country has been the target of such a massive influx of money and assistance in such a short span of time,” says Turine. “On paper, with that much money in a territory the size of Haiti, we should have witnessed miracles; there should have been results.”

And yet the situation on the ground is dire, says the Belgian photographer: “Two years ago, there were still refugee camps in Port-au-Prince’s center. Now, they are gone, but the people have been merely displaced. They now live in the city’s suburbs – in these prefabricated shacks – [with] a parallel economy.”

For Turine, the international community has crushed the country’s hopes. “NGOs are pulling out, creditors have stopped investing,” he says. “Haitians find themselves in a social and economic situation that is worse than before the earthquake.” And yet, its people subsist. “I feel there’s this collective energy that comes from how close all Haitians live with each other. There’s this idea of collectivity, which leads to certain neighborhoods taking control of their own fate – cleaning up their streets, opening up their schools, etc. They have been forced to take over from the government, which is unable to offer these services.”

Still, he has no doubt that Haitians will weather the crisis, even as it stretches on. “It’s already a victory to see that the country hasn’t exploded, especially when you see what has happened in the last decades — from Jean-Claude Duvalier to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, from the cholera to hurricanes, the country has faced a succession of social, political and environmental crises,” Turine says. “The fact that Haitians haven’t succumbed to madness shows that they’re resilient.”

Gael Turine is a Belgium photographer represented by Agence VU’.

Alice Gabriner and Phil Bicker, who edited this photo essay, are respectively the International Photo Editor and a Senior Photo Editor at TIME.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

TIME New Zealand

Major Earthquake Rattles New Zealand Close to Christchurch

Kiwis experience a tremulous start to their morning

New Zealand’s South Island was jolted awake after a severe earthquake struck near its west coast on Tuesday morning.

The 6.0-magnitude earthquake struck close to Arthur’s Pass, about 60 miles (100 km) west of Christchurch, just before 7 a.m. local time, reports the BBC. It was recorded as one of the strongest seismic events in New Zealand since the 2011 Christchurch quake that killed 185 people.

More than 30 aftershocks measuring up to 4.2 in magnitude were felt by people around the area.

GeoNet, New Zealand’s natural-hazard-monitoring service, identified the quake as “severe” and has warned of more aftershocks.

“In a typical aftershock sequence, we can expect the largest aftershock to be up to magnitude 5.0,” the agency said in a statement.

GeoNet seismologist John Ristau told the New Zealand Herald it was not unusual to have earthquakes of this magnitude in Arthur’s Pass.

No damage or serious injuries have been reported across the affected area.

[BBC]

TIME California

Earthquake Off Coast Shakes Northern California

The 5.3 magnitude quake was centered in the Pacific Ocean

(FERNDALE, Calif.) — The U.S. Geological Survey is reporting a 5.3 magnitude earthquake off the coast of northern California.

The USGS says the quake was centered in the Pacific Ocean, about 70 miles west of Ferndale, California, and struck about 4:16 a.m. PST Thursday. Ferndale is located just over 100 miles south of the Oregon state line and about 275 miles northwest of Sacramento.

An officer with the Ferndale City Police Department said some slight shaking was felt in the area early Thursday. He said no damage or injuries were reported.

The earthquake was about 250 miles northwest of the epicenter of a magnitude 6.0 temblor that caused extensive damage in Napa and the surrounding area on Aug. 24.

TIME natural disaster

See the Worst Natural Disasters of 2014

When it comes to acts of God, 2014 wasn’t a particularly active year. No powerful hurricane struck the U.S. like Sandy in 2012 or Katrina in 2005. There was no singlecatastrophic event like the Asian tsunami of 2004, which killed nearly 300,000 people, the Haiti earthquake of 2010, which killed over 200,000, or even the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in 2010, which disrupted air travel for weeks.

But while there wasn’t a single iconic catastrophe, Mother Earth was still plenty busy in 2014. A volcano in Hawaii, a typhoon in the Philippines, wildfires in California and seven feet of snow in Buffalo—this year has witnessed its share of extreme weather and other natural disasters. The photos that follow are a reminder that when the Earth moves or the heavens strike, the results can be gorgeous to see—provided you’re not caught in the middle.

MORE: The most beautiful wildfire photos you’ll ever see

TIME movies

Watch the Trailer for Dwayne Johnson’s Upcoming Earthquake Epic San Andreas

“Where will you be, who will you be with, when everything falls apart?”

The official trailer for Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s next film San Andreas is out: and it’s equal parts epic and terrifying.

Johnson posted the trailer on his Twitter account. It shows a massive earthquake laying waste to buildings, roads and dams across Los Angeles and San Francisco, between black screens bearing the words “Where will you be, who will you be with, when everything falls apart?”

The film is scheduled for release on May 29 next year, and also stars Paul Giammati, Archie Panjabi and Carla Gugino.

TIME central america

Powerful Earthquake Rocks Central America

One fatality but no major damage reported

A shallow 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of El Salvador and Nicaragua late Monday, killing one and sending tremors across Central America.

No major damage has been reported and an initial tsunami alert was retracted, Reuters reports. One man was killed by a falling electricity post, according to the mayor of the El Salvadorean city of San Miguel.

The quake happened at a 40-km depth, with the epicenter located 67 km west-southwest of Jiquilillo in Nicaragua and 174 km southeast of El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador, the U.S. Geological Survey says.

[Reuters]

TIME Iceland

See Iceland’s Volcano Raging Under the Northern Lights In 1 Amazing Image

The Bardarbunga volcano erupts under the aurora borealis in the Holuhraun lava field in the east highlands of Iceland near Snæfell on Sept. 2, 2014.
The Bardarbunga volcano erupts under the aurora borealis in the Holuhraun lava field in the east highlands of Iceland near Snæfell on Sept. 2, 2014. Gísli Dúa Hjörleifsson

Since the Aug. 31 eruption of Iceland’s Bardarbunga volcano, the world has watched in awe as it spews glowing red lava into the desolate landscape. Bardarbunga has stemmed a series of earthquakes through the country, but the eruption has also become the subject of some incredible photographs, videos, and satellite images.

Icelandic photographer Gísli Dúa Hjörleifsson, who is also a ranger in the area, may have captured the most epic images of all: the hot glow of the volcanic eruption underneath cool and ethereal haze of the northern lights, or the aurora borealis.

The Bardarbunga volcano erupts under the aurora borealis in the Holuhraun lava field in the east highlands of Iceland near Snæfell on Sept. 2, 2014. Gísli Dúa Hjörleifsson

“In my many years of working in the highland of Iceland both as a photographer and ranger, I . . . have a knowledge of the nature and especially the way the light has an huge influence in the landscape,” Hjörleifsson told TIME. “Knowing the current situation of the volcano I wanted to capture this unique situation. I drove up in the area surrounding the volcano and watched the the sky until I could see the northern lights taking shape. That interaction with the heat and color from the volcano created a completely new color palette I have never seen [before].”

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