Guest Blogger: Darren Purcell on Haiti

February 10, 2011

I’ve gotten to know Darren Purcell of Visionary Photography through twitter and facebook. In November Darren had the opportunity to travel to Haiti to take photos for Haven, an Irish aid organisation in Haiti. It was a short notice opportunity that Darren didn’t want to pass up. Darren asked me to photograph one of his weddings which coincided with the trip to Haiti and I gladly obliged. Here is a brief interview with Darren about his volunteer work in Haiti.

How did you end up volunteering in Haiti?
A friend of mine worked with Haven, an Irish aid organisation based in Haiti. I casually mentioned it to her over dinner one night that I’d love the opportunity to go over there, so to keep me in mind if they ever had a need for a photographer. I thought nothing more of it until a few months later, I got a call from Haven inviting me to travel to Haiti.

What was your role in volunteering?
I travelled around Port Au Prince, visiting several camps, shelters and schools that Haven is working in. My brief was to document what I saw with photographs. I travelled with three Irish journalists from The Independent, The Star and Newstalk, so part of my brief was to support them by filing photos relevant with their articles. I also wrote a two page article myself for the Sunday World. You can read that here.

My next goal is to publish a book of my photos, scheduled for a May release, with 100% of the proceeds going to Haven to help rebuild Haiti.

What was the most shocking to you?
The rubble. 95% of it still remains exactly where it fell. On the anniversary of the quake, I visited a new school that had recently opened, where they were holding a party to commemorate the anniversary of the quake. It spoke volumes to me about the Haitian spirit. Every single Haitian lost somebody in the quake (some lost their whole families), yet on the anniversary, they chose to honour their loved ones by celebrating their lives. While the party was taking place, I slipped away unnoticed and explored a destroyed building at the back of the new school. It turns out this building I was exploring was the old school that had fallen in the quake. It was littered with torn schoolbooks, lunchboxes and children’s shoes. Seeing that just hit me like a train, the sudden realisation of how so many lives were wiped out in the 42 seconds that the earthquake lasted. When the quake started, people ran indoors for shelter, not knowing any better. In most cases, it was their shelter that killed them. It was there I took this photo:

Was it worse than you imagined or not?
I don’t know if it was worse, but it was definitely not what I expected. It’s a different kind of poverty to what we have seen on television with Ethiopia, Somalia etc. Most people in Haiti have adequate food supplies and clothing. People still go about their daily grind, going to work and school. They simply don’t have buildings or infrastructure of any kind. Even basic sanitation facilities are scarce, which is why the cholera outbreak gripped Haiti so fast. Trade is brisk. Travelling salespeople wander the streets and the camps, carrying their goods for sale on their heads. People sell beds, televisions and mobile phones from makeshift tents on the side of the road.

Is there much evidence of the volunteer efforts being made?
Yes. The NGOs are everywhere and are carrying out phenomenal work with very little resources. Less than a third of the money that had been pledged by the international community has actually been handed over. Bill Clinton has taken it on as a personal crusade to get international governments to honour their commitments. Even when money and goods make it to Haiti though, there are still challenges. I was talking with an engineer from Oxfam who told us they have a large number of JCB diggers (to help with the removal of rubble) that have been sitting in the port for months because of an issue with import duty and red tape. The Haitian government is run from a tent in the grounds of the fallen Presidential Palace.

How do the people of Haiti feel about efforts being made?
They are incredibly grateful. The children are playful, inquisitive, fun loving and extremely polite. When they go to school, their uniforms are spotlessly clean and pressed. The adults are appreciative of the help, but also frustrated at the lack of a centralised plan for reconstruction. All of the land records were lost in the quake, so one of the main problems now is that nobody knows for sure who owns what land. Until that issue is sorted, it is difficult to see real progress being made.

Special thanks to Janice and Phillip, whom you may remember from a previous post, for being so understanding and allowing me to photograph in Darren’s place. Profits from the wedding have been donated to helping aid in the recovery of the Haiti earthquake.