|Written by Jon|
|16 Jan 2010|
On this page a small collection of imagery, resources, links and ideas that offer ways of seeing the earthquake and its impact on the survivors in Haiti "firsthand". On the following page, unfolding events on twitter and some questions.
Moises Saman was working with ActionAid UK, one of a number of British
aid agencies raising funds for Haiti through the Disasters Emergency Committee.
© Moises Saman/Panospictures
Mapping: a crowd-sourced incident database
I decided in the virtual vacuum of news information to do something, anything that might help. In the back of my mind I dreaded the details we were about to receive. So what could I do in the meantime? At least put up a banner to help raise money for a Haitian aid organisation on the Foto8 website?
Which organisation? it was still too early for the likes of the UK Disasters Emergency Committee to have decided a group policy towards the quake. Their site said the situation was being evaluated and a statement would be forthcoming. Likewise on US charity sites I saw that the they were expecting to launch appeals soon. Charity Navigator is a useful resource for those wishing to determine which charity to support.
I came across Yele Haiti, the aid foundation setup by musician, and Fugee band member, Wyclef Jean to assist the people in his homeland . Over the next few days Wyclef and the Yele.org foundation communicated to the world, via Twitter, information and commentary on his trips to the country and his firsthand situation reports that were unobtainable from the major news channels at this time.
And so began a whole new way for me of experiencing news, reading reports from firsthand sources and even editing them to reformat and pass on to Foto8's readers. I preferred this approach to watching the news which seemed too repetitive and unrevealing.
Alongside @wyclef I followed @Qtiptheabstract (Qtip from Tribe called Quest). Each maintained a high volume of calls for people to donate and "wake up" to their role in helping the people of Haiti. From there I began to tune in to voices coming through twitter from inside the country like @CarelPedre, @fredodupoux, @InternetHaiti, @karljeanjeune and @Le_Jacmelien. Theirs and others shown on these pages were on-the-spot testimonies, providing damage reports and pleas for help on a disturbing and deeply personal level.
I have found individuals much like myself who were tuning in around the world and responding to pleas for assistance by broadcasting these appeals in the US, Canada, UK as well as directly to aid agency mission headquarters. They are receiving tweets, texts, manning the phones, passing information and, most often, it seemed, adding credit to Haitian mobile phone top-up bills so that the phones could remain on. Digicel, the Haitian mobile network supplier stayed online for much of this time allowing messages sent via text and twitter to play a central role in broadcast urgent needs.
With all this information being transmitted I wanted to know where one could verify and check data against other reports passing around the "twitterverse". I found @ushahidi on twitter and their situation room here: http://haiti.ushahidi.com. The software was developed during the unrest in Kenya in 2008. It works as a crowdsourcing, incident-mapping, portal for disasters and conflicts. Ushahidi provides a realtime map view and searchable database of reports, in Haiti it has become a live resource for relief and intervention efforts.
I start to question the kind of photographic response we would be seeing from the disaster zone. I knew that the newswire service photographers would be sent for their agencies and that others would decide to make their own way to Haiti on spec. Many have had a long term interest in Haiti, "the world's poorest country", many launched their careers, so to speak, covering the coups, blockades and civil unrest during the 90s. Many of them have personal connections, and friends in Haiti, some even homes or families.
I follow the messages from photographers who were enroute attempting to find a route into the country. I find that @cazalis was looking for colleagues to share a car from Santo Domingo to Port au Prince, and I find the first of many excellent visual reports from the New York Times Lens Blog talking to, photo editor and photographer, Maggie Steber about her links to the country and her thoughts on the eve of travelling there after the earthquake. Other reports with photographers Damon Winter and Ron Haviv to name but two, contributed to the considered content the New York Times is posting.
As I collect these links and forward them via ReTweets on the @foto8 feed I follow @yumi_goto puting a #haitiphoto tag on my photo tweets from Haiti. As more and more poeple pick up on our posts and add their own with the #haitiphoto tag a database grows with links, and stories related to those covering the earthquake in photography as well as discussions on the ethics, moral and needs for photography in this situation.
Today I am seeing messages coming through from people working for the Aid agencies themselves, @oxfam, @savethechildren, @MSF_USA etc etc. Of these @Louisoxfam provides updates on how the oxfam convoy is progressing on its journey through the Dominican Republic heading to the border. MSF (Medicines sans Frontieres) has cargo flights in the air and are lobbying for access to be granted into the airport at PaP. Later that night one plane is forced to divert to Santo Domingo due to congestion at the small and damaged airport.
All the while Haitian bloggers, now joined by @RAMhaiti the outspoken owner of the famous Olofson Hotel in Port au Prince which traditionally houses visiting journalists and those who stay often in the country, kept up the pace on twitter. The unmediated, often simple, descriptions fire my imagination far more than any carefully constructed news package. They provide an open line to the rest of the world, reporting hyperlocal events and making the global community aware of specific needs. Ushahidi has opened up a short code SMS number in Haiti, 4636, for anyone on the ground to send text messages with their location and any incident, whether it be a medical, security or an urgent need for evacuation from a crushed building.
I think I sent about 50 messages today, trying to reflect a number of simultaneous angles to the unfolding story. Local reports, aid coming in, the emergence of systems being setup to coordinate relief, a listings directory of photographers sending images and then the beginings of a discussion taking root along the theme of "put down your cameras and dig".
My family are about to disown me if I don't put the phone down and stop following conversations in Haiti. I spend the day checking in whilst walking in the park, fixing diner, bathing the kids. I put it down when I'm reading a story to them but the thought of us sitting here and that going on over there is never far from my mind. The kids have seen images on the TV, its unavoidable, and we try as best as we can to fill them in.When you see an 8 year old boy shaken by the thought of what people are going through with something like this you a) of course realise that thats nothing compared to being trapped or orphaned, thankfully and b) see that compassion fatigue as a concept is a bourgeoise, arrogant middle-aged cynic's way of explaining their own disassociation from the lives of others. My son's is a whole new generation, the one we keep saying will inherit our environmental and social consequences. He has that, and all other ways of being - and loving - to look forward to. Don't tell me that his world suffers from "compassion fatigue".
There are a few more tweets on the wire about the role of photography and journalism in disasters. There is one from an editor's point of view on whether a freelancer without a specific assignment or outlet for his work should be there. At the same time some photographers are filing reports for the aid agencies they are working with and others are interviewed for their firsthand experiences in the newspaper websites. I tweet about not being able to see how producing good work could do anything but good for Haiti and for the role of photography as a tool of social discourse and documentary.
But to be honest by the end of the weekend having been constantly plugged-in to the transmissions of tweets, web links, blogs, and emails about Haiti I was feeling rather disoriented. Conflicted may be a better way to describe it. On the one hand I had a burning desire to do something, anything to be involved, to help. Was this the inherent ideallistic photographer in me wishing secretly that I was there? Or was it the now more sedate father and publisher wanting to feel alive and useful, on-the-scene- so to speak, and switched on to the technology that allowed me to do it from my armchair?
Was social media the means to effect a real change? Was this the point that messages and staus updates became dispatches from the frontline, worthy of reporting? Did they actually replace the news? Was this endless chatter on the airwaves adding to the confusion of the professional rescue and reporting teams with multiple reports and unverified sources? Was I beginning to equate social documentary with social media and in so doing was I unfairly demanding that every photographic institution join the crusade or be branded unworthy if they didn't? Are MSF being allowed to land, is Oxfam really putting out an executive pitch for your funding on YouTube? Who's in charge? Where is President Preval?
I can't answer those questions as I write this and I have continued to monitor and resend things of interest that I find online but I am also mindful that at some point I will have to come back to what is going on around here in London now. Work, family, friends. Will it seem at a certain point that I've had enough of Haiti? That it's time to move on? Or is there a way once the message stream dries up to follow up on the stories of the people I have read about and maintain a certain pressure on myself and others around me to still care about their needs?
Above all though I want to know....is it what Haiti needs?
On Monday I send a ReTweet it was a line that went something like this: "Bank Bonuses 64.2billion - Haiti relief fund 100 million". I added the word "disgusting" to the end of it.
It became the most forwarded and read message I sent all week. What does that mean? Has the time for sympathy passed and the time for disdain and anger at those that should have helped but didn't begun? Can simple messages spike the public conscience and provoke the much needed debate on why Haiti can't escape the crippling burden of debt imposed by the countries that now rush to its aid.