A young boy peers out through a shattered wall in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

(First published 25 years ago)

I can’t really say why I went down to Haiti in the first place. Ron, a priest friend of mine, wrote and suggested I make the journey to see some places and faces that would fill a whole book. As every egocentric photographer knows, that’s all you really need to hear.

“Sure,” I thought, “I’d love to have a million images to choose from. And my portfolio could stand to have a little third world poverty thrown in to give it that caring, humanist look.”

When National Geographic said they’d like to see what I came back with, I was hooked.

Yeah, I was curious about the country and being nosy is what makes us journalists, right? But these motivations for making the journey were about as shallow as the fresh water ponds found on the island and just as slimy.

As my plane was taking off from Miami I realized I was just this side of clueless. I was between jobs and didn’t have a long time to prepare for this and get adjusted to becoming a new daddy. I learned a little Haitian history and details of the political climate, but I spent zero time learning about the people and studying their language.

It was sheer willpower that stayed my nerves and forced me to get off the plane in Port-au-Prince. After worming through customs and haggling for a good taxi fare, I found myself winding through a Caribbean hell. I was driving in comparative luxury in a battered old pickup truck with a driver who looked to be about 90 years old. Streets that would have been happier lining Baghdad carried us past the pre-teenage hookers gesturing suggestively, the dilapidated shanties that housed several families and the frightening sight of children bathing in sewage. But they couldn’t carry us far enough away from the smell; a sickly sweet, sour scent that sticks to you and works its way inside your soul.

After Ron took me to his mission that doles out food, water and medical attention, (no, they don’t try to convert the residents), I started to understand the mood and rhythm of Haiti. I was told that everyone wears long pants on the weekdays and shorts on the weekends. I wanted to fit in so I pulled on some jeans but then completely contradicted myself and wore a photo vest so I would look like a real journalist. I stuck out like an accountant at a nudist resort. Everywhere we walked we heard the cry “Blanc, Blanc!” meaning, “Hey look, it’s a white guy.”

Once we were visiting a clinic in the worst section of town, Cite Soleil, and suddenly the military showed up and began dragging a young man away. Our driver told us to get into the van and stop taking pictures. He was frightened for his life as well as ours. I had to watch as a woman ran out pleading for the soldiers not to take her son away. The army had our van surrounded and even if I didn’t have the nerve to shoot them, I’m sure they would have had the nerve to shoot me.

Orphaned boys knit knick-knacks to sell on the street to support their orphanage.

The next day we were in an orphanage which had a strict rule against photography. So the doctor I was traveling around with told me to just hang out and play with the kids. I chose a room with some of the younger children and sat on the concrete floor. Soon, the nun attending the room left and I had 15 young waifs running in, dancing, running out and just playing the silly kid games that every nationality and race plays. As the action began to move outside, I noticed a few tinier ones weren’t participating, so I stayed indoors with them. They were the ones I earlier tried to keep from being bullied due to their size. I waved them over and they lay down in my lap and, amazingly, fell fast asleep. One of the girls woke 10 or 15 minutes later and went out to play but one little girl with straggly hair, dirty cotton dress and tired old eyes stayed cuddled in my lap drinking in the contact and affection.

My doctor friend came by and kneeled down next to me. Looking over the tiny girl asleep in my lap he gently informed me she had AIDS and probably wouldn’t grow up to be a normal, healthy child.

My heart melted in the Haitian heat. All that little girl wanted out of life was a few moments of sanctuary in my lap. God, I wanted to rescue her and bring her back home. If my wife hadn’t been pregnant with our own baby daughter, there’s no telling how far I would’ve pushed the adoption process. I think it was then when I finally realized my trip wasn’t pointless.

It wasn’t all about photography. It had something to do with participating instead of observing. Seeing the man dragged from the slums to almost certain death was important even if my camera didn’t capture the image. Feeling the little girl’s need as she clung to my lap was never recorded with lens or film but nevertheless was etched on my soul.

Thank goodness I was able to put the camera down in times like those and pick up my humanity.