Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010

Out of the Ruins

To witness the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti is to be lost inside a waking nightmare. The markers on this mapless journey are the swarms of looters, children with chopped-off limbs, cities fabricated of sticks and bedsheets, pulverized cathedrals, dogs circling the dead in the streets.

Most Haitians have always lived in a society constructed along a narrow ledge on a precipice above the abyss. The rich existed on the plateau above them, unseen in their black-windowed Land Cruisers. Higher still, as if levitating, was the immaculate, blinding white presidential palace — the secret desire of all despots — now crushed by the weight of its three Baroque domes. Where the ledge crumbled, the dead cascaded into oblivion. Where it held, people huddled closer, those with next to nothing suddenly with even less. They continue to endure their history — a crescendo of privation and hardship, matched by strength, pride and dignity. Their nation was born in the conquest of slavery; it has been shaped by poverty, struggle and faith.

The earth shrugged, Haiti collapsed, and the world responded. "Compassion fatigue" was exposed as the straw man of cynics and ad salesmen. Epic catastrophe was met with epic generosity, without benefit of untapped oil reserves or geopolitical gain. The U.N. is here in force, but the real united nations are the small NGOs from every corner of the planet that just showed up, flying by the seat of their pants. String their acronyms side by side, and they'd go halfway around the equator. Recite them, and you'd be speaking in tongues.

The Haitians are not just sitting back with their hands out. They're doing a lot of the heavy lifting — so humble in its nature, it seems invisible. Massive international relief supplies are transported by cargo ships, helicopters and C-130s. Haitians carry what they need on their heads. They dig survivors out of the wreckage by hand, not with big yellow machines. Everyone is doing what he or she can by whatever means available.

As a photojournalist, I've been involved in documenting the history of the past 30 years, and much of my work has focused on wars, conflicts and social injustice. It's been fueled by anger, driven by the belief that if people are informed, they will be inspired by compassion and will share a sense of outrage at violence, aggression and the unacceptable deprivation of fundamental human rights. Those issues are all man-made, and anger can jump-start the process of change. An earthquake is an act of nature. Tens of thousands die in a few minutes. Who is to blame? Regime change is not an option. How can anger be directed at the earth itself? Compassion is the ultimate motivation in a natural catastrophe. The challenge is to maintain it for the long haul, not allow it to die with the headlines.

Haitians have forged history, with a capital H. Slaves rose up to vanquish one of Europe's mightiest empires. Earthquakes reveal the power within the earth itself. But the spirit of the Haitian people is also a force of nature. Virtually all the symbols of political power in a country synonymous with corruption have been erased. What will the Haitians write on the blank pages of a new chapter of their history?