April 16–June 3, 2010
Part truth and part wry joke, Haitians sometimes refer to their capital as “the Republic of Port-au-Prince” because the city is home to almost 50% of the country’s population and because it is so different from the rest of the primarily rural nation. A dense, sprawling tangle of cinder-block shantys and once proud, now crumbling edifices of various architectural schools, the city is like a nation unto itself, a dusty labyrinth of stone seemingly out of place on a tropical island.
I have been covering Port-au-Prince since 2004, when president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted by rebel army officers. It is a fascinating, ever-changing study in chaos and survival. My last visit was in 2012, two years after the deadly earthquake.
Soaked in blood and baked by the sun, it is a chaotic, complex city spreading over planes, ravines and hill-sides, a huge puzzling knot of humanity, like a banyan tree with its hundreds of roots, branches and tendrils. I feel at home there when I am not gripped by fear. There is wealth but mostly poverty, culture, art, beauty and degradation in equal measures. But here, history is a zombie that stalks its descendants relentlessly and the noble revolution of slaves is mirrored everywhere in its failures and tragedies, from the ruined white hulk of the presidential palace down to the modern slavery of child domestics. Despite the weight of its tragedies, Haiti remains beautiful, vital, magical.
I began photographing Port-au-Prince, particularly the “centre-ville”, earnestly in 2005 though I was often told that the area was too dangerous. Successive periods of architecture-- Colonial, art Deco and something uniquely Haitian lived side by side. But the level of decay —many of the buildings were shuttered, in ruins or inhabited by squatters—told me that much of this visual history would disappear. So I combed the streets, photographing life in the context of these buildings. Then came the earthquake, condensing into a single day what might otherwise have taken years.