(Captions to photos follow the post)
If you have looked at a newspaper article about Haiti over the past 25 years, the chances are excellent that you have seen the work of the photographer Daniel Morel. He is himself Haitian; he has been a witness to much of the turbulence in his country; and other journalists have credited him with saving their lives in the streets of Port-au-Prince.
Daniel Morel has also become increasingly disillusioned and angry with how the mainstream press either ignores Haiti altogether or only reports on the intermittent spasms of violence, and so he is taking his photojournalism in an exciting new direction. Regular visitors to Mondoweiss know that one of this site’s aims is to try and show Palestinians as people, instead of faceless terrorists, so Morel’s experience in another part of the world is relevant.
(A selection of his work is on display in downtown Manhattan, at the Soho Photo Gallery, until January 2. The opening reception is Tuesday, December 1, 6-8 p.m. He calls his exhibit “Facing Our History;” here is a booklet about the show.)
Daniel Morel sat down with me recently for a couple of talks; first on the veranda of the famous Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince, and then later in New York, just before he installed his show. He is a tall man, 58 years old, with a full, nearly white beard, strong opinions and a passionate manner. He speaks three languages: Haitian Kreyol, French, and English. He is well known and respected all over Haiti. He carries his camera with him everywhere he goes.
He worked for years for the Associated Press and Reuters, but he has now left daily journalism – he describes it as a “news factory” – to work on longer projects, including his 10-year research for a book and documentary film about a legendary Haitian band called Septentrional.
He says the mainstream press has been weakened by the CNN cycle of “headline-headline-headline.” He explains: “Afterward is more important to me. Afterward is when you get the real news. Photojournalism is not about taking pictures of dead bodies. Photojournalism is about the beauty of humanity. I want to show happiness – and pain.”
It is not easy to work as a journalist in Haiti, where people are dignified but poor, and lashed at times by political violence and natural disaster. Daniel Morel explains: “When I take peoples’ pictures, I don’t just stick the camera in their face. I first establish a relationship with them. When people see me in Haiti, they know I’m there to spread the word, to spread the news. So they’re always happy to see me. When they see me they know the world is going to learn something about their condition.”
He has strong criticism for journalists who parachute into countries and immediately file stories and images. “That’s why I won’t go work in Iraq, or Afghanistan,” he explains. “How am I going to go somewhere for 15 days and tell the world what’s going on in that country? I don’t think it’s fair; it’s dishonest.”
He says the photographers who arrived in Haiti to work alongside him were not mainly motivated by the story. “Most photographers who come to Haiti are there to get the Pulitzer Prize, or to get a promotion at their job,” he says. “There’s only a few who really care about the country.”
He is also annoyed that he and other Haitian photographers are marginalized internationally. “There’s a show in Paris about Haiti right now,” he says. “But I’m not in it. Haiti is represented by two foreigners.”
Despite his skepticism about the parachute photojournalists, he enjoys an excellent reputation among his colleagues, and he has pulled some of them out of the line of fire more than once. As a young man, he served in the U.S. army, and he uses his military experience to stay safe in the streets. “I always stay covered, or I look for where I can take cover,” he explains. “The other photographers’ goal is to get the best picture. My goal is to come back alive with my picture.”
What is particularly maddening to those of us who know something of Haiti is that parachute journalism gives the misleading impression that the country is a particularly violent place. In fact, Daniel Morel explains, the actual number of hard-core criminals is limited (“50, 100, maybe a few more”), but the police force is far too small, and insufficiently trained.
There is another kind of violence prevalent there, as he explained unexpectedly when I asked about the “biggest dangers” he had faced in his long reporting career. “From the moment you are born, Haiti is a dangerous place,” he says. “For example, if you get hit by a car, what quality of hospital are you going to go to? If you have a heart attack, how are you going to survive? Haiti is not dangerous for political reasons; Haiti is dangerous because it is so poor.”
Daniel Morel’s New York show, “Facing Our History,” was first shown to many groups in Haiti, especially students. He did not put the explanatory captions right next to his photographs because he did not want to distract from the images themselves. Once you have seen the photos, he explains, once you have actually looked at the human beings there, then you are ready to learn some background, and maybe start discussing what you have seen.
His biggest project – he has already been working on it for a decade – is a book and film about the Haitian band called Septentrional (“Northern”), from the port of Cap Haitien, which has been making music for six decades. (A full listing of Daniel Morel’s work is here.) “Haiti is a rich country culturally,” he says, a great understatement. “Septentrional represents 60 years of Haiti’s own music. Sixty years of war against rap music, against American culture which is destroying all other cultures and the world . . . To survive 60 years, is a big thing.”
Daniel Morel, in his work, is living the same paradox as many of us; the internet and other new technologies mean we can directly reach audiences that were unimaginable before, but it is hard to make a living at it. “My life is very tough now; it is not easy to try and do something new,” he says. “But I think I was born to be a newsman, a documentarian. I have to find a way.”
Captions: A boy cries over the body of his brother, allegedly shot by United Nations soldiers in April 2005. The little girls are students in a special school (“kind of a Montessori school for poor people,” Daniel Morel explains), in La Gonave.