“Take another fucking picture! I will take my rifle and blow your head off white bitch!” yelled the Haitian man, dropping his shovel in frustration at the USAID cash-for-work program site on the slopes of Kafou Fey. The assembly line of Haitian workers in bright-yellow shirts and white hard helmets heaving rubble up the sun-scorched, dusty slopes overlooking Port-au-Prince came to an abrupt halt.
Looking around for my American group members, I realised that I trailed behind and they overlooked the scene from a safe distance, not wanting to claim me as their own. Ignoring the Haitian, I made my way through the spontaneous Haitian crowd and caught up with the rest of the American group. We walked swiftly among the working muscles and sweating necks, through alleyways of rubble, and climbed onto a mountain of rubble (was anyone underneath?) until we reached the “photography safe zone” of Kafou Fey. It looked exactly the same, but to the locals, those who granted Americans entry into the community could show the tourists only specific range of the earthquake destruction.
What frustrates me most about that incident was that my intention for taking the photograph was to show Haitians themselves taking control of their own reconstruction process, without Western volunteers or presence overlooking the operation. But I learned that racial hierarchy and a destructive history of colonialism dominates interaction in slum tourism, no matter the intention of the photographer.
The other day, I had met two snobby Amnesty International scouters from Europe who had just arrived the other day and marched into Cité Soleil where they set up their camcorder near the garbage-filled canal and unabashedly filmed the canal community. A Haitian man peeking from under the tin structure he and a dozen other Haitians called Home began to ridicule the Amnesty International opportunists by dancing around and yelling from across the canal and demanding attention from the camcorder. They ignored him. No interaction with the people, no interaction with the volunteers either. I struggle with the question of whether or not I was any different than the Amnesty International scouters in Kafou Fey.
The politics of photography continuously fluctuate, making it very difficult to take an ethical photograph at the right time. One second, you’re the person who wants to pretend you have nothing to do with the others taking the unethical photographs, and the next second, you’re snapping a handful. The terrain is difficult to traverse, especially if one is sensitive about respecting vulnerable communities.
But there is one sort of rule of thumb I have always followed about photography in poor countries: no photographs of (especially naked) children without parental, or camp permission unless the children are included in the general landscape of the event in the photograph. Photograph of children playing a football game in Cité Soleil? Yes. An up-close portrait of a child’s face in Cité Soleil? No. A group of women holding their naked babies while picnicking out in the open? Yes (with permission). A group of cute, naked babies running around? No.
Children don’t have the capability of giving consent because they do not understand the repercussions of what being videotaped or photographed completely naked would have on their safety and privacy. Furthermore, children, such as those in Cité Soleil whose daily interactions circle around cooing slum tourists who take photographs of their “cute” exposed rears from the tears in their pants develop a certain persona in front of the camera. They begin to “act” with their tear-dropped eyes, putting on a show for the voyeur. Is this the world view that we want those children to develop? I have not met one Western parent who would enjoy strangers taking photographs of their naked children. So why should it be right to do it to vulnerable communities and perhaps even use that photograph of the child on the website to melt the hearts of potential donors?
Back at Kafou Fey, farther away from the cash-for work program, the Haitian guides show us a school house where the teacher had taught the children the French verb ‘mourir’ on the day of the earthquake that has been left unerased. Elementary school children ran around our group, peeking through the windows, giggling and laughing. The circus games began! Americans grabbed their cameras to document the cuteness of the children. Most audacious was the Haitian-American journalist who went within one foot of the children and snapped portrait shots of them smiling.
Ashamed at the group phenomenon, I took several steps away towards a tent-like structure made of several, rusty metal sheets. In the hole between the two tin frames, I noticed an old, naked grandmother bathing in an old tin tub. We locked eyes in silence. In shock at the close proximity of the encounter, I turned away and muttered some apology in broken French. What was striking was that she did not look ashamed or shocked. In fact, she did not make any sound, nor did she stop what she was doing. It is as if she expected the encroachment on her privacy, and knew that the real shame was on me for stepping into her bathroom. In this context, I had stepped on a pointer thorn than the photographers!
Departing from Kafou Fey, amid children yelling Blanche! Blanche! at me, I said my polite au revoirs to the elders and lastly to the Haitian man who had yelled at me. He gave me the look of death. I did not belong there and I was not invited back.