Photographer Jeff Antebi recently spent time in Haiti, shooting urban scenes in Port-au-Prince. Late last night he shared his thoughts as he reflected on the enormity of the earthquake’s devastation, and we in turn are sharing those thoughts—and some of his photos—with you. —The Editors
Haiti is on my mind and I am very sad tonight.
I was in Port-au-Prince twice in 2009.
When I arrived the first time, and walked around the streets, the people stared at me cold. It was, at first glance, an unwelcoming place.
My dear friend Jean-Marc de Matteis, who I hope is alive and well tonight, smirked a bit and said, “The thing with Haitian people is that they’ve been through a lot. It’s a hard life here and people wear it on their faces. But that’s not the true nature of Haitian people. Watch what happens if you make eye contact and simply say ‘bonjour’ to someone.”
I did. 100 percent of the time I got a smile. Sometimes a quick flash of a smile and back to a glare, but the glare became an easier glare. Sometimes they’d smile a massive smile and say “bonjour” back. I can’t stress enough the amazing feeling of getting a smile 100 times out of 100 attempts. The country, in its entirety, was a welcoming place.
I don’t exaggerate when I tell you I said “bonjour” to almost everyone I made eye contact with. I went out of my way to make eye contact. Compulsively so. And Port-au-Prince is a crowded place. That’s a lot of people to say “hello” to. My friend and interpreter Alain Charles, who tonight I cannot find and it’s taking me enormous restraint to not cry, took notice and would often laugh whenever I said “bonjour” with an almost exaggerated smile. To him, it seemed like I was kind of insane. Like I would if he tried it in Los Angeles or New York City. But I loved doing it.
Even then, before the earthquake, Port-au-Prince was an unbelievable mess. Practically no infrastructure worth talking about. In many (most?) parts of the city, there was no electricity. So as night began to fall, whole swaths of the capital became deserted for a lack of light and security. Bonfires the only way to move about without getting lost. Traveling as moths to flames.
One night, after a marketplace turned from lively to utterly apocalyptic, I decided to walk very far into the depths of the darkest, dangerous part of town rather than flee. Deeper than Alain was comfortable going, and he had lived in the city all his life. But I kept saying to him, “One more bonfire, that one in the distance, then we’ll head back.”
In retrospect, it was an almost suicidal mission. It’s hard to believe I made it in as far as I did and was able to return to a safer quarter. But it’s important to say that what kept me from being fearful was my continuing to make eye contact. No one wanted to say hello and I didn’t speak either. And even though I was conspicuous, carrying two cameras out in the open, no one bothered me. I would look at them, they would look at me. Over the course of the evening, this happened maybe a hundred times. They were ghosts to me, and I was an apparition to them. I passed through a nightmarish, spectral landscape alive and they allowed me to, unharmed.
I spent a lot of time in Cite Soleil, considered by most to be the worst slum in the Western Hemisphere. The Wikipedia entry for Cite Soleil states, “Armed gangs roam the streets. Murder, rape, kidnapping, looting, and shootings are common as every few blocks is controlled by one of more than 30 armed factions.”
The conditions in Cite Soleil are unimaginable, almost like a village built on top of a huge garbage heap. But one of the most striking features of this spot is the number of children. It was impossible to move without being surrounded by kids. Most didn’t have shoes, sharing the ground with pigs, waste, and excrement. But they were sort of a happy bunch, considering it all. Holding up half-melted robot toys or playing cards. Smiling and playing around with laughter and curiosity.
On the other hand, they were starving. Some looked at me and ran a finger across their throats. Hard to express the feeling you get when a child indicates he is going to die. Keep that image in your head. Which is why I can barely contain my sadness. These little ones had almost nothing going for them but for a sense of humor. Barely a chance for literacy, let alone any kind of education. An astoundingly high probability of falling ill and dying from bad water, and little chance of finding a job when they got older. More likely HIV/AIDS or human trafficking.
I can’t watch the news on television or listen to the radio. I can’t look at websites. I’ve been there, and now I picture it in my head after a 7-point earthquake.
Nothing going for them and now the earthquake. I am praying for the best for them. They deserve it.
See Jeff Antebi’s photos from Haiti on Flickr or on his website. Antebi urges people to donate to Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders. “It will make a huge impact,” he says. “Haiti is only a little more than an hour from Miami. It’s very easy to get help there.”
Images by Jeff Antebi, courtesy of the photographer.