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Monday, 18 May 2009

Haiti, slaves and satirising photojournalism

picture: Alice Smeets

This article on Haiti in the Sunday Times Magazine caught my eye because it meant there was something worth reading in the Sunday Times for a change - turn up for the books there.

The historian (could that be why it's worth reading?), Alex von Tunzelmann, describes the slave background to the island, the revolt that gave the island independence and the reparations France demanded for er, losing the war or what exactly? Surely the normal thing is the loser pays the reparations, but then Haiti had the mark of loser on it from the start. Von Tunzelmann writes:

"The slaves’ life expectancy was 21 years. After a dramatic slave uprising that shook the western world, and 12 years of war, Haiti finally defeated Napoleon’s forces in 1804 and declared independence. But France demanded reparations: 150m francs, in gold.

For Haiti, this debt did not signify the beginning of freedom, but the end of hope. Even after it was reduced to 60m francs in the 1830s, it was still far more than the war-ravaged country could afford. Haiti was the only country in which the ex-slaves themselves were expected to pay a foreign government for their liberty. By 1900, it was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments. In order to manage the original reparations, further loans were taken out — mostly from the United States, Germany and France. Instead of developing its potential, this deformed state produced a parade of nefarious leaders, most of whom gave up the insurmountable task of trying to fix the country and looted it instead. In 1947, Haiti finally paid off the original reparations, plus interest. Doing so left it destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile. Haiti was trapped in a downward spiral, from which it is still impossible to escape. It remains hopelessly in debt to this day."

She also describes the reaction of locals to her camera in a village devastated by last year's hurricanes.

"Not many strangers come here, and they are intrigued. Even in the middle of horrific poverty, the people have not lost their sense of humour. I raise my camera to take a picture, and an old woman immediately begins weeping and howling. Shocked, I lower the camera, and she points at me and roars with laughter. It was a joke, and a clever one: she was satirising the usual news-agency photos."

It's not the complete story but it's a fascinating one for a part of the world of which I know nothing. And the pictures by Alice Smeets are rather good too.


gate valves said...

what a great photo. reflections really make astonishing images. this can actually win a pulitzer award. really great shot.

Andrea Todd said...

I just want to point out that the article goes through every single racist stereotype of Haiti: child slavery; a pitiful population stuck in the past; elevating charity from rich countries above Haitian self-reliance; the "unappreciated White savior" narrative and fear-mongering about Whites being under threat, etc. Yes, the author does mention that the rich countries have been sucking Haiti dry, but that doesn't excuse the stereotypes she uses. I don't think racist and skewed reporting like that should be circulated -- bigoted stories about Haiti do a lot of harm, no matter how allegedly charitable the intent of the article.

colin pantall said...

You're absolutely right, Andrea, the child prostitution quote and observations on terror are priceless.

It's sensationalist all right. What struck me at the time are the quotes I mentioned at the start, especially about reparations and the regard given the photojournalist.

Andrea Todd said...

Thanks for not taking my comment as a personal attack, colin -- most people would've, especially on the Internet.

And yeah, the quotes you pulled weren't as bad as the rest of the article, which at it's worst could have been a parody (it's too bad it wasn't).

colin pantall said...

Absolutely. I've never been to Haiti so I have no idea if what the writer says is the case. But I do get the impression that there are places in the world where the level of corruption, environmental degradation, poverty, political ill-will and incompetence are beyond satire - and that Haiti might be one of them. Grassroots self-reliance and community action can do something to manage that (and the writer does note this), human resilience can do something more, but not quite enough - perhaps elements of the story reflect that. The writer is having it both ways undoubtedly, especially with regards to the fear-mongering but I'm not sure about the unappreciated white saviour and whether stories of poverty, slavery and doom are racist - though elements of the sensationalising of it might be, and perhaps more could have been said about what was being done by people like the pastor in the story. But then again, perhaps not much is being done or what is being done does not have that much of an impact. It all comes back to the reparations really and that is where the story begins and ends for me.