Haiti: Photo Journalism or Poverty Porn

January 13, 2024
7 mins read

By Sokari Ekine
| With thanks to Blacklooks

Saturday, November 16, 2013.

To be poor in Haiti: is that to be nothing and hungry, sick or dead in a
photo album on a desk in New York, sold for $10 a piece?

To be poor in Haiti: is that
to be nothing  and desperate and needy, to be pitied or saved.  
Take my bible and I will feed you the bread?

To be poor in Haiti: is to be
reformatted as ‘troubled’ and to feed the pockets of foreign NGOs and

To be poor in Haiti: is that
to be nothing and no one of value and dignity and meaning and sacred potential?
Accountable for in the story of this country?**

I was alerted to the website Turning World – @Turning_world – by some friends here in
Haiti. The site is run by photo journalist, Brad Workman who has an ongoing
photo documentary in Haiti.  I took issue with his language, the project,
the fact that there is no acknowledgement let alone giving back to those whose
lives he invades under the guise of social documentary.   The books
and prints are for
sale on the website.  and 
previews here.   There  are
different ways to tell a story without invading peoples lives and assaulting their
dignity – see
here and here the photos chosen by the Camp Acra residents on
their blog which should be a lesson on what Haitians see for
themselves.   Teju Cole’s 7 point tweet analysis of the   “White-Savior
Industrial Complex“  is a must read for any white saviors or potential white saviors
embarking on a savior mission..

“4 – This world exists simply to satisfy the needs – including,
importantly, the sentimental needs of white people and Oprah

7- I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded
hippo. You must keep an ey on it, for you know it is deadly.”

The story be dammed – people
are more important.  Enough already!

My email only begins to touch
on the whole issue of the  ethics of disaster photo journalism and the
white saviour mindset.  Two well known examples of disaster voyeurism are
the  one of a  young Haitian girl, Fabienne
Cherisma, who was
photographed dead having been shot by a policeman after the January, 2010
earthquake.  The accompanying text states that looters then ‘went through
her pocket to steal what they could” meanwhile  all 14 photographers stood
by her body adjusting their lens for further shots- a kind of double shooting,
one causing death and one prolonging death as imagery forever.   Two
of the photographers won an award for the series.

A second even more disturbing
photo is one of a Sudanese
baby dying of hunger whilst a vulture  waited in anticipation of  her death. 
The photographer, Kevin Carter, who also won an award, waited 20 minutes before
chasing it away.  Journalists in Sudan had been told not to touch famine
victims so instead of,  at the very least holding and caressing the child
to at least give human comfort or try to get her to the nearest field hospital
and treatment she was left alone.

There are  also many
questions around  the unequal power relations between photographer and
their subjects, objects. Photos rarely come with context beyond what was in the
photographers lens at that moment and their decision to click.  We the
observer are left with the photograph and our imagination to interpret what we see
and if this is to influence thousands of white saviours to invade Haiti then I
see that as problematic.  A question that constantly returns is why is it
that so many white Americans, the majority who have no contact with Black
people in their own country,  feel the need to spend their life saving the
people of a Black nation?

In the case of Workman, the idea of photo journalism as
non-interventionist is serialised across the global south under a guise of
non-partisanship,  shooting people in distress and  ‘enmeshed in
political or social change’ and for his own material gain as well as
satisfying   ‘emotional
needs’ and white privilege.  It’s certainly not driven by notions of solidarity and struggle for
justice but rather flowing from sentimentality and who knows what other
emotions are carried behind the choice to avoid the words ‘slavery’ and
describe structures of violence as ‘troubles’!

“Mr Workman

I am writing in response to your description [Turningworld.org] of your
photo journalist project in Haiti where I note  you have visited 20
times.   Specifically I wish to respond to the your presentation and
thereby engagement with Haiti based on the language used in the description
which I find highly disturbing.

Firstly without text and context photos do not tell the story that needs to
be told. So even before your photos are presented, the text you write is a
shadow of the reality behind the story – So how will the truth be told?

You use the words ‘human bondage’ and Haiti’s resistance to this.  Why
not simply be clear and upfront by using the word slavery and writing that
Haiti has a history of revolution beginning with the only slave revolution
which led to the first black independent nation?  Instead you imply that
this ‘human bondage’ is not only continuing but you erase the very resistance
you attempt to speak of.    Presumably after 20 visits you have
an in-depth knowledge of Haiti’s history, culture and politics?  
Incidentally are you aware that after Haiti’s independence many enslaved people
who escaped managed to travel to Haiti to live as free men and women?  Are
you aware that Haitians including the revolutionaries fought on the side of the
Americans against the British. Are you aware that Haiti’s debt is a direct
result of being forced to pay reparations to France for ending slavery and then
being punished for demanding the return of these monies which have contributed
to the impoverishment of the Haitian economy?

You write that ‘Haiti is a deeply troubled country’ and go on to speak of
poverty as if poverty happens outside of the socioeconomic and political regional
and global landscape. How is Haiti troubled in ways that other countries are,
by implication not troubled?  This kind of Eurocentric exceptionlaism is
counter productive as first of all it ignores the underlying systemic
structures of capitalism which perpetuate poverty from Guatemala to India to
Nigeria to Haiti to South Africa.   Secondly it singles out Haiti as
being somehow different to other sites of poverty in for example the above
countries which are at the very least as poor!  One just has to know and
understand the racism  that underpins the US’s  relationship with
Haiti, something I note completely ignore by those who come to ‘publicize and
save’ Haiti from all manner of ‘misery’ to question a simplistic statement on
poverty in Haiti.

You talk of hunger, child labor, street children, environmental
degradation, limited health care, cholera as  ‘troubles’ ..  These
are not TROUBLES, they are acts of violence and the direct effects of
colonialism, elitism, occupation, capitalism and rampant disaster capitalism
and what Paul Farmer calls structural violence for which western nations, the
US, France etc are the driving force.    Attempting to de
politicize Haiti in view of presenting a non-partisan perspective just doesn’t
work because it erases the  proud history of this country, it erases the
destructiveness of US and French imperialism, it erases the truth behind the
poverty, the street kids and the non existence healthcare and the fact this
present government is systematically disposing of the popular masses to the
extremities of the city and the country.

You speak of MINUSTAH but only in half truths i.e. you fail to explain why
they are in Haiti or the violence they have committed  in poor
neighborhoods plus their responsibility of cholera.  You fail to mention
the militarization in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake which added to
the trauma of people’s lives.

I have viewed the first stage photos and I am deeply concerned at showing
photos of wounded, hungry, sick vulnerable people.  This is a objectifying
and insulting and pure pornography of poverty.    So the world
will see these photos and the false narrative that Haiti is a poor diseased
violent country is perpetuated.  Yes this I know to be the narrative. 
It is one told to me regularly whenever I visit the US and mention Haiti, the
one the media loves to describe as ‘the poorest country in the western
hemisphere’  as if that is the sum of 10 million people and 300 years of
history! .How on earth does this help Haiti?  And why do you feel you need
to publicize the struggle rather than support or come in
solidarity.   Whats the response OMG,  how awful these poor
people are suffering, lets make way for more of the  faith based
missionary and the NGO industrial complexes to save Haiti.

How about giving Haitians cameras and letting them take their own photos;
how about providing equipment for Haitian photographers to train youth and kids
so they can document their own lives as they see fit instead of a self-centered
careerism on the backs of the poor people!

You mention ‘promotional’ photos on your web page without giving some
proper explanation on the monetary value of these and what you intend to do
with monied raised from this and the rest of your work.  I see no
where  you explain how you will give back to the communities and people
who will be come subjects [objects] of your work?”

His reply which I  will
leave for readers to interpret…

Brad S Workman – Turning World

Dear Sokari Ekine:

Thank you for taking time to
write such a thoughtful e-mail! I hope to
have additional contact with you as I work to complete (and possibly
expand) the “Embracing Haiti” project.

For now, I must go but will

Sincerely Yours,
Bradley S. Workman

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