Town of the abandoned
On the invitation of the German public charity LESPWA — Hoffnung für Kinder in Haiti e.V. (Hope for Children in Haiti) I visited the town of Port-au-Prince two years after the Haiti earthquake. I accompanied Dr. Barbara Höfler during her work there and drove with her into the slums. Lespwa is the Creole word for “hope” — and without that, nothing more would be possible here; even two years after the catastrophe, the situation is still extremely precarious in every respect. To understand the people, their lives, their traumatisation and also the glaring brutalization, one has to remember that even before 2010 Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere and had only managed to free itself from slavery 200 years ago. What remained was a displaced people who had never been given the chance to develop their autonomy. The economic, social and human ramifications are serious and ongoing.
On arriving at Port-au-Prince, my first impression was somewhat eerie. It was already dark, and there wasn’t a single street lamp alight in the whole town. The only light you could see was moving light: the headlamps of cars and torches held by people walking through the streets and by street vendors lit up the pulsating town. The traffic moved according to rules that I still couldn’t fathom out days later.
By daylight however, the real state of Port-au-Prince, its slums and shacks was revealed to me. It was a first, breathtaking sight — in the literal sense of the word. But the people who lived there seemed to have accepted this as their everyday life. All stone shacks were equipped with bars; if one was “middle class” and even had a small bit of space around one’s shack, this was enclosed by a high wall. Nobody seemed to be safe from theft by his neighbour. Even that was normal here.
However the living conditions and the appearance of the people seemed to be strangely at contrast with each other: because, regardless of how dirty the slums were and no matter how rundown the shacks looked, it was very conspicuous that all men, women and children made great efforts with their personal appearance. They wore shirts, blouses and dresses, paid great attention to cleanliness, and all the girls had some kind of adornment on their hair. Mothers and children were proud of the school uniforms which were usual for the schools here. A glance into the street told one at once whether it was Sunday: that was the time to proudly show off one’s Sunday clothes in public.
Port-au-Prince is young; you hardly see any old people anywhere on the streets. Most mothers were children themselves not so long ago and are now responsible, on their own, for the upbringing and care of their offspring. Many of them prostitute themselves for a price equivalent to 50 Euro cents. Children do not have any toys and they don’t play games. The whole time I spent there, I only once saw a boy kicking a ball. Most children spend their time on their own or in small groups in the alleyways of the slums — and frequently give the impression of being almost apathetic. Everywhere one sees and feels the fight to survive each day, a fight undertaken by lone individuals.
Most of the time I accompanied Dr. Höfler on her rounds to treat patients, visiting individual families with her and the “Little Schools of Father Bohnen” (OPEPB, a project of the Haitian Salesians). During my work I profited from the trust that the women and children had in her.
During my drives and walks through Site Solèy, Ti Ayiti or La Saline I never went alone. As a white European, you attract all eyes onto you and awaken covetousness: equipped with photo gear, one is simply not safe. Together with up to five companions you sometimes attract even more attention, but at least you are relatively well protected against possible attack.
The closer one gets to the sea, the greater and worse the poverty and hardship. In the neighbourhood Ti Ayiti that stretches right down to the beach, the condition of the shacks and their surroundings give an observer from outside no more reason to hope. Here mountains of rubbish and scrap heaps are the most dominant feature of the street scenes. People wander around in them looking for something of some value while the permanent burning of rubbish sends an acrid stench through the neighbourhood.
Both times I visited Port-au-Prince I always tried to avoid adopting the position of a voyeur and of taking sensational photos of the very worst squalor. It is surprising that I often managed to capture everyday scenes, quasi as an invisible observer, despite the exposed position I found myself in. My photos show the reality of a good 90% of the people living in Port-au-Prince — as they presented themselves to me. And these photographs do not only attempt to capture how the people there live, but are also intended to convey something about why they are as they are.