Finally, an article about ME in a New York daily newspaper!

I've been working for some time on a project based on the Mexican Lotería, the Bingo-like card game whose 54 images are touchstones of Mexican popular culture. I haven't written about it here because I have a whole section dedicated to it on my personal website (about which more in a moment).

The Lotería de la Migración, as I call it, reimagines the original images of the most widely played version of the game as commentaries on the obstacles and issues encountered by would-be migrants to the U.S. in the age of Trump. 25 of the images from this project are currently on display at the Hemispheric Institute at NYU (20 Cooper Square, 5th floor. Tell the security guard you are there to see the "migration exhibition", which will be up until May 31st.). 

After seeing the show, Carmen Molina Tamacas of El Diario NY interviewed me and wrote a much longer and more in-depth story than I could possibly have hoped for.  

On the very same day I got a message from Google suggesting that my website was infected with viruses and malware. I opened an onscreen chat with my hosting provider to ask them what they thought. They chatted back: do you mind holding for a few minutes while we check out the issue? 

Pro tip: don't ask your web host to check whether your site has a virus. If you do, they will just shut you down and ask questions later. It seems pointless to provide a self-promotional link here, but if you go to my website now, here is what you will see:


Over on his Tropicalizer blog, dedicated to the vernacular of the global south, Leo Ramseyer just published an interview with me about the "Amazing Barbershop" project. Check it out!


Val Jeanty on Radyo Shak for Clocktower.org

The lovely and talented Val Jeanty stopped into the Clocktower radio studio at Pioneer Works not long ago, and she brought her gear with her: a laptop, a deejay's sample controller and a stack of suave loops. We chatted a bit, but the heart of her visit was the amazing set of improvisational electronic music she did, blending vodou samples and other snippets of Haitian audio into deep grooves. She makes music on the fly with a few simple pieces of chip-based hardware in a way I have never really experienced live, right in front of me, before. In other words, this is a one of a kind performance!


An Interview with Josh Jelly Schapiro on Clocktower.org

Just gone live today on Clocktower.org is my interview with Josh Jelly Schapiro about the heinous, ongoing efforts by the Dominican Republic to expel Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian extraction in what amounts to racial cleansing right next door in the Caribbean. Josh recently returned from the Haitian-Dominican border; he's one of the few journalists who has been closely following this issue since the passage of discriminatory legislation in the DR 18 months ago. We met at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince about the time that law was going into effect, and Josh has been back many times since to investigate the realities engendered by the xenophobic climate and grotesque new law in the Dominican. You can listen to our conversation HERE. 


Radyo Shak

I'm embarked on yet another diverting and rewarding and entirely non-profitable collaborative venture, the production and realization of a pirate radio station in the inner-city of Port-au-Prince. This is and will be the Radyo Shak, coming soon to the Caribbean hood.

I've written here before about the Ghetto Biennale, an event that started out, one imagines, as something between a fantasy shared over a beer on a late night in a hot city and a potential promotional opportunity for some of Haiti's most dynamic and original artists. After the first Biennale, held just before "the" earthquake in December of 2009, the event has like Lazarus risen every two years since, growing in the meantime into something that the outside world, especially the art world, now pays attention to, has actually heard of, wants a piece of!

Earlier in the year, the Biennale co-founder, my dear friend Leah Gordon, contacted me to see if I would be willing to serve as the point person for the creation of a radio station to broadcast news of the Biennale and its artists, its excitements, its failures and personalities, throughout the surrounding neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, and throughout the world via Clocktower.org.

This idea, too, seems to have grown out of a fantasy shared over a beer on a late night in a hot city, except in this case the city was not Port-au-Prince but Sharjah, or rather neighboring Dubai, beer being entirely unavailable in Sharjah, and indeed illegal. Alanna Heiss, founder of MOMA PS-1, and Leah were attending some sort of arts meta-event, like a biennale devoted to discussing other biennales, or something. Alanna is also the founder of Clocktower.org, a fabulous online arts and music and everything else radio platform , housed for the moment at Pioneer Works right here in Red Hook. (I presume the geographical convenience of this is not the only reason Leah called me).

The rest is soon to be history-in-the-making. Along with Clocktower studio guru Jake Nussbaum I'll be broadcasting all things Haiti from a shanty in the inner city of Port-au-Prince during the culminating ten days of the Biennale, December 10th through 20th. We're also producing as much programming in advance as we possibly can; my interview with house music legend Richard Laurent is online now. Upcoming shows include an interview with General Dadou of Brooklyn rara Djarara and an exclusive midnight recording of them marching through Prospect Park, a story-telling extravaganza and musical parade through Brooklyn with the Haiti Cultural Exchange and artist Allenby Augustin, Troubadou music with yours truly DJ Richard Nixon coming out of retirement, and anpil lot bagay tou! (Much, much more.) Watch this space.


The Many Moods of Donald Trump

My very first proper job was in the camera department at the Princeton University Store. It was a summer employment, and I was very temporary, but it was a time when working behind a retail counter was a perfectly stable and respectable career, and two of my co-workers were middle aged guys who had been working there ever since I remembered first going into the place when I was virtually a toddler. One of them was mildly animated. The other, Bob, was slightly pudgy and entirely unflappable, so unflappable that he appeared to be emotionless. Bob never got upset and Bob never smiled and Bob always wished the departing shoppers a good day. On the wall, to show passport photo customers what they would receive after getting their picture taken, we posted a grid of four identical photographs of our unflappable coworker. Underneath, someone scotch-taped a caption: "The many moods of Bob."

That job might mark the beginning of my love for and interest in photography. But while I'm fascinated by the photographic image, I've always questioned the ability of photographs to convey meaning. Photographs are an amazing tool that help immeasurably in telling a story, but they cannot tell stories on their own. Without writing or context the typical photojournalistic "capture" is only capable of a message so broad that it is essentially meaningless. A picture of a policeman pointing a gun, with bandanna'd youth threatening to hurl shards of brick in the background? Sure, there are racial clues, and a full-on semiotic analysis of a particular image will yield more, but often we don't know if we are in Baltimore, Algeria or Burma. "Demonstrators confront authority" is about all we can extract.

What does this have to do with Donald "I have ten billion dollars" Trump? Recent coverage of the Republican frontrunner's presidential campaign in The Guardian has me thinking about how single, but especially multiple images, can drive an agenda virtually without context. I find, at least collectively, that the images below convey a consistent and undeniable message. They convey meaning without caption or context. All of these have been lead illustrations for various Guardian articles about the Donald over the recent weeks since he announced his candidacy, but you don't even need to know who this is to understand that you are dealing with a flatulent, mansplaining blowhard.

The relentlessness of the photoeditorial decision-making process at the Guardian raises questions of fairness in journalism that are more typically leveled at written coverage. Or perhaps there just aren't any photographs of Trump in which he looks friendly, reasonable, or electable.


(All photographs are screenshots from the Guardian online, rights and authors various. Any copyright complaints will be swiftly considered, although I generally feel that the fair use principle applies here.)


Some technical notes on the Grand Finale of HBO's "The Jinx," from the perspective of a sound recordist.

Warning: spoiler alert. You may wish to avoid reading this if you live in a cave and haven't yet seen The Jinx.

Andrew Jarecki's riveting series for HBO, The Jinx, seems at present to be well on the way to fulfilling the ultimate goal of investigative journalism, the righting of wrongs. His subject, Robert Durst, the millionaire scion of Manhattan Real Estate royalty, was a free man when Jarecki began his research into three separate murders that Durst may or may not have been involved with. Today, just a few days after the  airing of the sixth and final episode, Durst is behind bars, accused of first degree murder. Most of us working in the documentary arena dream of moments like this, when the ethereal work of filmmaking has an immediate and real-world impact. But instead of reveling in the moment, Jarecki and his collaborator Marc Smerling have gone silent, invoking, like many a corporate entity of recent decades, the notion that it would be imprudent of them to comment because they are likely to have to testify in court. “Given that we are likely to be called as witnesses in any case law enforcement may decide to bring against Robert Durst, it is not appropriate for us to comment further on these pending matters. We can confirm that evidence (including the envelope and the washroom recording) was turned over to authorities months ago,” they announced, in a statement. Although it would seem to me that another option would be to tell the truth now, and then tell the truth again later, in court, the filmmakers have cancelled all further interviews and press appearances. 

The press hate to be shut down, and journalists hate little more than having their interview cancelled, but the backlash against the creators of the The Jinx has nonetheless been extraordinary. From Gawker to the Guardian, my entirely unscientific analysis is that as much as half of the press coverage has more to do with when Jarecki learned what and what he did with the knowledge than it does with Durst's guilt or innocence. The snark also began before the filmmakers cancelled all appearances, with questions about the "timeline." Because the final interview with Robert Durst occurred "a couple of years" after the earlier ones of 2010, Jarecki is accused of having sat on some extraordinary audio, presumably recorded in 2012, in which Durst appears to confess all. For as long as three years. While Durst roamed the streets. Jarecki's response has been to say that "many months" passed between the filming of that last interview and the discovery of that audio. How can such a thing have come to pass?

Durst and Jarecki, in a screengrab from HBO Go.

There are two potentially inculpatory bombshells revealed in the final episode of what, in stepping back and taking a retrospective overview, is some ostensibly documentary television that is extraordinarily difficult to distinguish from the mood, feeling and structure of a fictional scripted narrative crime drama. The first is the comparison of two hand-written envelopes addressed to different addresses in Beverly Hills. Both writings are in block capitals. Both misspell "Beverly" as "Beverley." Both appear to have been written by the same hand. One envelope once held a letter from Durst to his since-murdered friend Susan Berman; the other told police where to find Berman's corpse. Durst admits he wrote the first, and denies writing the second. Then, at the very end of the episode, apparently at the very end of the interview, Durst goes to the bathroom, where he is recorded muttering to himself apparent admissions of guilt. It is the ethics and "correlation to reality" of this section that most interests me from a technical standpoint as a sound recordist. 

Jarecki holds a photograph, or photocopy, of the "two Beverleys"

The "timeline" questions about the Jinx are important, but they essentially boil down to wondering when Jarecki and Smerling told the police what they knew. In other words, despite believing Durst to be dangerous, did they privilege the schedule for the release of the series over the safety of the public? Did they, ethically or not, postpone the inevitable moment when their relationship with Durst was going to change from one of friendship, collaboration and mutual exploitation into one of antagonism and betrayal? The jilted LA Times' Questions we'd like to ask The Jinx's Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling is typical of the quite numerous articles that question the filmmakers' priorities. It is literally a list of questions, much harder questions than I think Meredith Blake would have asked if the LA Times had actually been able to conduct an interview.

Durst's numerous nervous tics include belching, blinking and yawning as if bored. Note the lapel mic, prominently visible at the top center of Durst's shirt.

Handwriting experts will battle over the "Beverley" envelopes in court, but to understand what happens in the final two minutes of The Jinx, it may be necessary, for once, to call to the stand experts in the recording of documentary film audio. How is it recorded? What equipment is used? When are those recordings listened to? How are those recordings used? How do they actually get into the filmmaker's workflow?

A quite murky and poorly-defined extra-wide shot that will not be earning anybody any cinematography Oscars. Durst faces Jarecki in the lower right-hand corner. Note the microphone pointed towards them from the ceiling. I would estimate it to be a good six or seven feet from the subjects.

These final two minutes are presented as having happened at the very end of Jarecki's very last interview with Durst. After the scene in which Jarecki confronts Durst with the two envelopes, we cut to a high-angle wide shot, in which much film equipment is visible; the cameraman, who we have just seen passing behind Durst's head, back on the other side of the table (the edit leaving insufficient time for him to retake his place, incidentally); a boom microphone on a stand, very high up, almost against the ceiling; a lamp, also clamped up high. In this shot, Jarecki is holding a photograph that is not visible on the table in the shots that make up the sequence of the envelope confrontation. It appears to be a photograph of a couple. It is certainly not the image of the two "Beverley" texts that he was holding two shots prior. In a feature film this would be a continuity flaw, a failure by the script supervisor. In a documentary, it slides by. Film editing is all about collapsing time in a coherent way, and this sequence clearly shows that some unspecified amount of time has passed between the envelope conversation and the wide shot, in which the two men thank one another and say goodbye. (This sequence analysis also answers one of Meredith Blake's LA Times questions; "Did the interview end immediately after you confronted Durst with the handwriting samples, as depicted in The Jinx?" Meredith, the answer is "no.")

This camera and its position are themselves odd. The images from it are much blurrier and darker than those from the "primary" and "secondary" cameras used to construct the envelope sequence. It is a sort of "record" camera, in that it sees as much of the room as possible, without any artistic intention. In my entirely speculative estimation, it was likely a small "Go-Pro" style camera placed in a high corner, perhaps just on the off chance that Durst might lose control of himself and attack Jarecki. Even as a rarely used third angle it is a bizarre shot, given that it sees the appurtenances of filmmaking. The already extremely wide position of the microphone on the boom indicates to me that it has been installed in such a way as to be invisible to even the widest possible shots from the two cameras set up across the table from Durst and Jarecki.

 At the end of this shot, Jarecki appears to remove his own microphone.

What happens next is also quite odd, cinematically. The wide shot holds as the two men shake hands and get up. Durst walks forward, around Jarecki, and out the bottom of the frame as Jarecki asks for someone to locate "Bob's" bag. Someone else offers Durst a sandwich-to-go, which could be taken as a rather nasty inside joke, given that Durst was once arrested in Pennsylvania for shoplifting one. At the end of this shot, Jarecki can be seen removing his own wireless transmitter. We then jump-cut to another shot from this same camera, with Jarecki no longer in frame, and a couple of presumed technicians, who we have not seen before, suddenly visible, coming around the far end of the table. Is one of them the sound recordist?

From the moment of this odd jump cut there is only an illusory synchronicity between the sound and the picture. Once we see the two technicians, what we primarily hear are the private murmurings of Robert Durst, no longer visible. I would argue that the jump cut here, from one, synchronous moment in this strange wide shot, to another, with Durst's voice coming from some unspecified area off camera, is used precisely to create the illusion that Durst is speaking at the same time as we see and hear a light being switched off in the interview room. It is important to note that we hear the light being switched off, meaning that in constructing the scene, the editors took audio both from some source within the interview room, perhaps the overhead boom, and also from Durst's lavalier microphone now out in the hall, as he looks for the bathroom. The two have very consciously been mixed together, presumably by Coll Anderson, who has the audio post credit on the series. The sound of the lamp being switched off reinforces the idea, for which there is no actual basis, that Durst's monologue and the shutting down of the set are happening simultaneously. We then see an intertitle card:

You are now going to accuse me of pedantry, of harping on semantics, but this is a strange card. Microphones do not record. Tape recorders record. Actually, in the present day film business, a combination of software, hard-drives and compact flash memory record. The filmmakers have thought very carefully about what images they are going to put in what order in the telling of their story; I'm going to assume they also thought carefully about how to phrase the crucial intertitle that introduces Robert Durst's earth-shattering, allegedly self-incriminating statements. Let's imagine for a moment that we are sitting in on a meeting in which this phrasing is being discussed:

As a sound recordist I might raise my opinion that sound recordists get insufficient credit for supervising the most important half of the image-sound combination that make up the modern film. Why not make up for that in this intertitle? How about "The sound-person continues to record Bob while he is in the bathroom."? 

No, someone would point out, that reinforces our ongoing intrusion during his going to the toilet. It gives us agency.

I should mention that approximately 90% of the interview subjects I have wired in my more-than-twenty-year sound recording career forget within minutes that they are wearing a microphone. Only crack professionals who are interviewed almost daily sometimes remember. Very often it is only when they go into the bathroom and find that there is a small wire leading from their belt or pants pocket up to their shirtfront that they realize someone may be listening to their every fart. It is quite common for interview subjects to then come see me and ask me to turn the transmitter off before they return to the toilet. On a recent shoot with former president Bill Clinton I was informed by his staffers that I was not to use a lapel mic, presumably because of the risk of recording an unauthorized or unguarded moment before or after the official interview. Obama, Bush, and Ronald "we begin bombing in five minutes" Reagan are only a few of those who have been burned by so-called hot mics. Jarecki told Charlie Rose that Durst knew that his microphone was always on, but knowing this and remembering it are two entirely different things.

How about: "The tape is still rolling as Bob goes into the bathroom?" No. First of all there's no tape these days, and we can't exactly say "The hard-drive is still rolling...."

OK, then, what about "The audio is still being recorded as....?" I suppose that might work, but it would be nice to avoid using the passive voice.

The obliviousness of the New York Times and the Washington Post with regard to my profession should embarrass both of those venerated publications. Here's The Post's absurd sentence about the bathroom confessions: "The camera crew had already packed up from the day's interviewing but the recorder kept rolling as Durst went to the bathroom." For their part, demonstrating a breathtakingly gullible interpretation of how this film was edited, the NYT writes: "Near the documentary's end, the filmmakers were packing up their equipment when Mr. Durst asked to use the bathroom. He did not remove his wireless microphone as he closed the door, however, and began to whisper to himself."

This is already dragging on, but perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. Most people who aren't in the film business don't have a firm grasp of what it is that a sound recordist does. I'm often asked if people hire me to come along and record the music that will be used in the film, or the sound of the birds in the trees or the passing traffic. In fact, these are usually the things I am trying to avoid recording, in the context of an interview, or a scene with several people talking to one another. Viewers don't understand that in order for a speaking human being to be heard crisply and with clarity on film, that person, in the vast majority of contemporary settings, needs to have a microphone very close to their mouth. Let's say, ideally, within 18 to 24 inches. Someone needs to put that microphone there, and the audio coming from it needs to be monitored at all times. (For this I charge approximately $90 per hour, if you are looking).

Back in the long-distant days of film, sound recordists were blissfully independent. We attached our microphones to our tape recorders with wires, and our only worry about the camera was whether it would see our boom poking down into the top of the frame, or our lavalier microphone peeking out from behind a shirt placket. We recorded the sound, and the camera recorded the image. In post-production, the two were synchronized. In this scenario, it was important for sound to begin rolling before the camera, and to continue to roll, if possible, after the camera cut.

Throughout much of the 1990s and the "aughties," as film became too expensive and video became more sophisticated, most audio was recorded on the camera. As a sound recordist my microphones were now attached to my portable mixer, with the camera doing the actual recording, whenever the cameraman was "rolling". I monitored the sound, but did not myself have control over the recorder. I would either have a couple of wires leading from my mixer to the camera, or transmit the audio to the camera wirelessly. Cameramen generally hated this arrangement, because the wires risked impeding their movement, and the "wireless link" option demanded that they do some level of monitoring to be certain the sound was coming through okay. In this scenario, which prevailed in television from about 1990 until at least 2005, and persists on many lower-budget productions, essentially zero audio was ever recorded when the camera was not rolling. Durst's mumblings would never have gone down on tape.

In a sense, we have now gone back in time. Because of the widespread adoption of portable multi-track hard-disc recorders like the Sound Devices 788T, and thanks to the proliferation of Digital SLR cameras, which shoot high-quality video but sound something like a broken walkman, sound recordists today, and during the period The Jinx was filmed, once again generally record the sound independent of the image. Although the video camera visible in the final shots of The Jinx is capable of recording decent sound, the use of a multi-track machine allows the recording of a large number of discreet audio tracks, offering more flexibility in the final mixing of the film.

The credited sound recordists on The Jinx, neither of whom I know, are Tim Hayes and Paul Marshall. I suspect that either of them would have been recording on some kind of multi-track machine. We could ask them how it all went down, but I am certain they will have signed deal memorandums ensuring not only their salaries but their silence. I expect them to be subpoenaed.

There are three microphones visible in the scene: the boom, the lavalier on Durst, and a lavalier on Jarecki. Each of these would be recorded on its own track. In order to aid the synchronization of sound and picture, the sound recordist would then send either one or two tracks of "scratch" audio to be recorded on the camera. On lazier or lower-budget productions, or quite commonly still on network television productions, the editors might well take the sound from the camera tracks rather than bother synching up the files from the hard-disc to the camera images. In this case I would only believe that this had happened if the recordist told me that he had sent Jarecki's and Durst's microphone signals to separate channels on the camera. The boom is so far away from the scene that it can only be there to record room ambience or to provide marginal backup audio in the case of a catastrophic failure of one or other of the lavalier microphones. It is quite possible, although lazy filmmaking, for the editors to have listened only to the audio recorded alongside the camera images, and to have ignored any audio recorded after the cameras had cut. Nonetheless, this recordist would have immediately alerted the producers to the bombshell that had just come into my headphones.

It is important to understand something about the transmitter packs to which these lavaliers are attached. I can see Jarecki's in the near final shot, but I cannot determine its make or model. Often just called "wireless," these body packs transmit the signal from the subject's lapel mic, or lavalier, to the sound recordist. Because of FCC regulations on their transmitting power, they typically have an out-of-doors "line-of-sight" range of approximately 100 yards. In dense urban environments with lots of other wifi activity their ranges can be significantly diminished. Walls also have an impact.

In my sound recording setup, I use Lectrosonics wireless systems. A receiver for each wireless is attached to the recorder, and I record the signal only when I choose, that is to say, when I press record. At the obvious end of the shoot, or interview, I will generally cut (press "stop"), if it is abundantly clear that we are finished. In an exceptional circumstance, and recording a final interview with Robert Durst probably qualifies, I won't cut at all until the director makes it very clear that he considers the filming complete. But in that case I will be sitting in front of my rig, with my headphones on, listening to what I am recording. Jarecki, or at least the media's interpretation of what he has told them, would have me believe that whoever recorded the Durst interview walked away, or started packing up his gear, while still recording. This makes no sense to me whatsoever.

If we accept that the Durst confession actually did happen after the close of the interview, rather than at some other time, it is clear that Jarecki thought the interview had concluded. How else do we account for him removing his own microphone? He can't have known that Durst would hang around long enough to use the toilet. The sound recordist could be excused for cutting, and even for beginning to wrap up his cables. Had I been the sound recordist, I would probably have been attempting to get the okay from a producer to remove Durst's microphone, in order to prevent him from walking out of the building with it. Durst's bag, after all, is being gotten for him, and he has left the room. If we accept the film's chronology, the lights have been turned off. The shot of the darkened, empty room then holds during Durst's entire lengthy bathroom monologue. This is another oddity; it even seems manufactured. I have never been on a film set where the film lights were turned off without the "house" or overhead room lights being promptly turned on. When the film lights are turned off, wrapping is about to commence, and wrapping is not done in the dark. It makes me suspicious. There is something slippery here. When we hear Durst finally say "killed them all, of course," the room dramatically darkens even more, as if the filmmakers flicked off a couple more switches out of frame, and have left the building, with all their gear still installed.

A dark and empty room full of film equipment.

There is one possibility that alleviates, but does not entirely remove my skepticism about how and when this audio was recorded, listened to, and noted. It also could account for the strange phrasing of "Bob's microphone continues to record...." The sound-person might have use Zaxcom wirelesses. These differ from Lectrosonics in that their transmitters simultaneously transmit audio to a wireless receiver and record it locally. They make a time-stamped backup of all the audio fed into them by a microphone for as long as they are switched on, regardless of whether or not the sound recordist is listening or recording. The idea is that if the subject wearing one walks, runs or drives out of range, it is still possible to recuperate their audio. I've heard they are useful for extreme sports.

I have a question for Meredith Blake to add to her list. I would like to know what brand of wireless Durst was wearing, and, if it was a Zaxcom, how anyone ever came to listen to the files that were recorded on it, given that they would be imagined to serve only as emergency backups of the production audio recordings on the hard-drive? If it wasn't a Zaxcom, the whole scenario is very fishy indeed.


Daniel Morel Interviewed

In my last post I promised a full interview with Daniel Morel, with whom I got to spend some time in the Grand Rue of Port-au-Prince on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the earthquake. I went to Haiti to write a couple of stories about his spectacular photo exhibit, a show that was put on in, by, for, and featuring the people of the Grand Rue. Morel, now 63, grew up just down the street, and his family had a bakery there. He was sitting in this same courtyard five years ago when the earthquake hit, and some of the same neighbors and friends and family who appear in the images helped install the show. Many, if not most of those who came to the opening know personally people in the pictures.

A nice long piece I wrote appeared in german in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, and I also recorded for the BBC's "From Our Own Correspondent." You can listen to that story about sixteen and a half minutes into this MP3 file, or read it online.

The day after the very moving opening of the exhibition, Daniel and I went back to the outdoor gallery space and sat down to talk about the ideas behind the show and the painful process of reconstructing Haiti. I've lightly edited the transcript for clarity:

How long have you been working as a photojournalist? Have you worked other places besides Haiti?

I would say over 30 years, that’s my career. I started professionally here in Haiti in 1986. I like working here; I’ve always worked here. Sometimes, in New York and other places, Venezuela, Santo Domingo. 

What do you consider the highlights of your career?

This. Also, the return of Aristide, when I was on the plane with him. October 15th, 1994.

That must be, probably, the day before I met you. 

To me what is really interesting about this show is that the people who are in the pictures are the people who helped put the show together, and they are also the people who live around here. Could you talk about the philosophy behind that?

That was a dream come true. It's the purpose of the show. That’s the reason I didn’t do it any other place, I didn’t do it in Petion-ville, I didn’t do it at the Oloffson, I wanted to do it here. Because the people here deserve to have a good show, up to an international standard. This show could be [put on display] anywhere. I think they deserve that.

How did your ideas for this come together?

The very next year it was in my head. Because the year [after the earthquake] I came back here to see all of the people that I had photographed, to see how they were doing. And since then the idea was in my head. I always wanted to do it with a book, but the book hasn’t come true yet, because of a lack of money and sponsorship. The second phase of this show will be to travel around Haiti, to take it to where people were not affected by the earthquake. And the book, always, of course.

The idea that was in my head was to do photography for the people. To do photography for people who never had any experience of photography. So that movement starts here. Not photography for the gallery, photography for the people. And they should have the same quality of photography, not lower.

Do you think it is a traumatic experience for people to see these photographs, the people around here?

Yes and no. I have observed a few moments—because I have been photographing their reactions—I have seen people who were very emotional when looking at the photographs, and I see others who were shocked and excited at the same time. Excited because they don’t know—they were in the earthquake, but they didn’t see the earthquake, or see themselves in the earthquake.

I think I was expecting people to be more traumatized than they were. People I saw were very moved, but in a positive way, and I’m having a bit of trouble understanding why that would be.

One reason is the way I edited the photographs. Destruction yes, but not so much blood and death. The photos are not so shocking. It’s a documentary about their life. I think that’s the main reason why you didn’t see so much emotion.

I saw plenty of emotion, but it was mostly positive.

Yes, it’s not very harsh, like sadness. I think this exhibition is more happiness than sadness. When people are thinking about earthquake photos, the first thing that comes to their mind is death, just like they exaggerated with the 300,000 dead. When other photojournalists came here, they focussed on the same thing: death, death, death, death. Only one subject symbolized the Haitian earthquake, and it was death. But human struggle is what really symbolizes this earthquake. That’s the way I shot it, and that’s the way people react to it.

From what I can remember, I only have four dead bodies from that moment that you see here. No more than four. 

I can easily imagine why the number of dead would be exaggerated. Of course I have no idea how many people died, but I know you feel strongly that the numbers were grossly exaggerated. Do you want to talk a little bit about why you think that is the case?

Yes. Because to have a death count, you have to count the bodies! I remember one of the networks said, the very next day, 150,000 dead, and from that point on it was out of control. Every hour the death count was going up without counting any dead bodies. Without counting how many were injured, without counting the missing. Myself personally, I don’t think more than 20,000 people died, but of course I am also in the wrong, because I did not count the bodies [either]. I think it shows disrespect for the country, disrespect for the victims; it’s taking advantage of the misery of the people to collect money. 

I went to Fort National, the whole place really was wiped out. And I asked the people in the neighborhood how many people died, and they told me maybe ten people. Also, the soldiers came here without body bags. That’s another way you could have made an estimation of how many died, by knowing how many body bags were distributed, you could have made some estimation.

Can you explain how your pictures were stolen?

I was not working for anyone. I received some offers [for the pictures] that were very low. I decided to put them on Twitpic, for the world to see it, and maybe to sell it, too. So, someone in the DR stole the photos and removed my name and put his name on it, but at the same time, people, the AFP, was trying to contact me, and then they decided to go with the other name. Then, the next day, they removed that name and they put my name, but without any authorization—and they say they had $20,000 for me—I never knew that! Basically the photos were unauthorized. The proper thing to do would have been to delete all the photos and send me an apology, say ‘we made a mistake,’ --they didn’t even bother to do that.

I was lucky to use Twitpic, because most people use the local phone company, and all the local phone companies were out of service. So us, in the hotel [Oloffson] we had a Satellite dish, and we had a little power left in the inverter, so I managed to send some photos out, but the power was in rationing. Every hour they would give us like ten minutes, I don’t remember. I think it was about twenty photos, 19, I think.

The power was off first of all. We had the inverter, but the generator was down, we couldn’t charge the battery, so we only had maybe an hour left of power, and we had to manage it, like ten minutes every once in a while, something like that. One reason I put the pictures on Twitter in high resolution was that it could’ve been the last time I was going to be able to have access to the internet. They [AFP] claimed this as an excuse, saying that I should not have put the pictures up at high resolution; it doesn’t matter. The lowest resolution can be stolen, too! Stealing is stealing!

Is there a difference for you between documentary and photojournalism?

For me, my style is documentary. Photojournalism, it depends how you do it, you can do it as documentary and you can do it as spot news also. All my pictures are a picture story. I don't like showing one photo. I always have a group of photos, a minimum of 4, 5, 6, or more. That way you can see the story better. I don't even have to write a word, you can see the story. There is a continuation, point A to point B.

You have the breaking news, the real news when it is happening, but the aftermath is more important than the breaking news, because that's the continuation of the story, and it's very important to know how your subject is doing, if they survive. That's the way I work. 

I would say that's very different from many photojournalists who come, they get the picture, and they move on. So they don't know whether that person has a future or not. It may have changed a little bit in the digital age of photojournalism, but I remember when we first met, twenty years ago or so at the Hotel Oloffson, those guys would be sitting around saying "oh, it's more of a hot scene in Rwanda than it is here, I'm going to fly over there", this kind of thing.

They cover spot news. They get paid for three days work, for four days work. Maybe it's not their fault.

I'm not blaming them. But you see an iconic photograph of a person, and you don't know what happened to them before, you don't know what happened to them afterwards.

That's one reason I choose not to travel. Because I think the story belongs to the local photographers. They are the ones who know the area, they are the ones who know their people. Why me, to go some other place, taking photos, when I have my own story to cover?

Haiti's enough of a story for an entire lifetime.


You chose 5 years as a good time to look back at the earthquake; it's also a good time to look back and see what has happened in the country in those five years.

One year was too fresh, and two years still too fresh to evaluate it. I think five years is a good period of time. The president is elected for five years. Two presidents have passed since that five years, you know. And my personal evaluation is not about reconstruction. My personal view of this period of five years is still that there is a lack of leadership. Nobody is really leading the reconstruction, leading, to help the people. Because the death toll was exaggerated, the homeless were exaggerated, and that became anarchy, really. Anybody could claim they were a victim. Nobody asked them, where did you used to live? What did you lose? They didn't have a file on each person who was in a camp, first of all. The camps were born by themselves. The camps were not planned, well planned by some organization, namely the Haitian government. They let the international [community] take over. They thought the international community was going to do everything for them. That's wrong. The first step is that the Haitian government should lead the reconstruction. Instead of that, everybody is trying to make money. The Clinton Foundation came here with a lot of money; the airplanes used to be full coming here, everybody coming with their project. Some of those projects, they are very useful, like solar power, some other stuff I saw was really useful, and the money was available. I'm not blaming that the Clinton foundation stole all the money, yes they did, but mainly it's our fault, because the government didn't have any plan. They're lazy. They thought Clinton was going to come here and build everything for them. That's not the case. You should have your own plan, and you say what you need: "I need a roof for this place here," and make an estimate for how much the roof is going to cost, how much the labor is going to cost, and you ask for money or whatever, to me that's the way the reconstruction should be planned. It's not by building those little cages for people that I see--and then they're going to accuse the international community? No. If I have to accuse, I have to accuse myself. I didn't do the right thing, I didn't take the responsibility to do what I was supposed to do, I failed. I'm not blaming NGOs, I will never make an excuse and say that it's because of NGOs that this country is like this. Because us, as Haitians we are incapable of doing the reconstruction, and the reconstruction can be done only by Haitians! 

Considering the location where we are, this is as much like a gallery show in Chelsea as I could imagine. It's clean, it's a beautiful presentation. In a way I see the show as a metaphor, or a commentary on what hasn't happened in the reconstruction.

Yes. You see the way I did it here? I did it with respect. Not because it is for poor people should it have to be on a poor level. People are people. Not because they are poor you should build them one room, without windows, in the middle of the desert. Because they are poor? No. Every single human being deserves a minimum standard of living, but here the minimum standard of living--when somebody is poor, they are not even like an animal, they just build anything for them--this is wrong.

The international community only comes here in moments of crisis, and out of these crises somebody always manages to make money. So it's as if Haiti is a kind of resource of disaster that the international community can draw on in a way, from time to time. And I think that the way they treated you, the way they took your photographs is in a way a parallel. Like, they raped your photographs.

Yeah, and they sued me!

And they do the same thing in the aid arena.

Yes. The way they are building those little rooms, for the reconstruction; it's the same thing. In Haiti, as a photojournalist, I'm nothing. In Pakistan, as a photojournalist, I'm nothing. It's not a matter of race or color anymore, it's a matter of big and small. What happened to me here could happen to a Pakistani, or Afghan, or Iraqi or any small local photographer. Because before the internet the local photographer was nothing. When something happens, they charter an airplane, come here, take the shot, go back, make their book, enter for the Pulitzer. Like they did here, they stole my Pulitzer away from me! Somebody came here 72 hours after... I submitted my work for [the Pulitzer for] breaking news, and you could see all the headlines, with my picture, all over the world. And I managed not to win the Pulitzer, I was second? And the person who came 72 hours later was the winner? This is the same thing. The only people who are really supposed to have a better life, is them.

You don’t think that race…? I mean, to me it seems like the attitude was, “This guy can't really fuck with us, so....

They didn't even know I was in the US. They didn't even know I was a US citizen. They kept on asking my lawyer where to send the papers, my address in Haiti!

That was a special moment, when the shoeshine guy came in....

When I saw that, I mean, whew. It was what I had been dreaming of. When I saw that guy walk in here, freely, looking at those pictures; that’s probably the best moment in my life. I didn’t even look at his face, I was so excited. I just kept taking pictures of his box, and I didn’t even try to look at his reaction. But I was so excited. 

To see a shoeshine man walk in and look at those photos, with so much interest, it was like a dream. Because a shoe-shine boy, or man, in Haiti, that is the lowest category of human being. It's the lowest job, the worst work you can do in this society. Can you imagine, you have to carry a box, 
you walk for miles, and miles to make $2, or $1? When I saw that guy walk in here, first of all he knew he had the right to come here, freely, to look at those pictures. That guy carried his shoeshine box in here to look? I tell you, seeing that was worth everything I did. 


Sonje means remember

I made a quick trip to Port-au-Prince last week to catch the opening of Daniel Morel's show of the photographs he took on the day of the earthquake, five years ago on January 12, 2010. It was an entirely unique event in my experience of the Haitian art world. He displayed the photographs in the Grand Rue inner-city neighborhood where he took them, so that the primary audience for the show was the same people who appear in the images. The are the subjects, or the friends and neighbors of those seen running, panicked, through the streets, in the pictures. Furthermore his assistants and docents are all drawn from the community, making it entirely a neighborhood affair. It was extremely moving, and I remarked at the time that I have never seen visitors to any Chelsea gallery stare with such intensity at the images on the wall.

I hope to post an interview with Daniel Morel about the show soon. At the moment I have a piece about it running on the BBC's "From Our Own Correspondent." You can listen to it online here, or catch on the BBC World Service wherever and whenever they run the program.

Daniel, in front of his exhibition.

ps: Anyone still having trouble with the link, as pointed out by phuzz in the comments, can cut / paste this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04ykk4w



At the beginning of What We Don’t See, the new documentary by Austrian filmmaker Anna Katharina Wohlgenannt, the artist Christina Kubisch wanders through a weedy field beneath high-tension wires, wearing bulbous old-school headphones while gently waving a pair of what appear to be plastic tennis rackets, as if swatting slow-motion flies. Later, we see her meandering through city streets, lost in her own auditory world. Her headphones are modified to translate the electro-magnetic radiation that surrounds us, all the time, into sound. We hear what she hears, a constant, dense soundscape of hums, buzzes and tones that serves as a powerful metaphor for the hyper-connected technology-driven world we have created for ourselves. There are now more cellphones in circulation in the world than there are people. Our homes have wifi accessible air-conditioners, thermostats and smoke detectors, and telecommunications companies squabble over the last unused blocks of radio bandwidth. If all these anthropogenic transmissions and emissions were visible we would scarcely be able to see our own hands in front of our faces. What if all those signals flowing through the air are debilitating to our health and sanity?

Rather than attack this question head-on, Wohlgenannt offers non-judgmental portraits of five people already certain that electricity, wifi, and cellular transmissions are poisoning them. Her characters live underground behind thick brick walls, or in remote, isolated rural areas. They sleep in Faraday cages, line their homes with mylar foil, or wear metallic radio-repelling chain-mail undergarments. If what they say is true, they are canaries in the digital coal mine; all of our fabulous technology is killing them, and will soon kill us. They suffer from, or believe they suffer from, Electro-Magnetic Hypersensitivity, or EHS.

A year ago, I drove to Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. to pick up Wohlgenannt and her cameraperson, Judith Benedikt. I had been hired to record the sound on the final, United States portion of their shoot. We headed to Green Bank, West Virginia, a remote, forested bowl in what is one of the poorest states in the country. The town is near the heart of the United States National Radio Quiet Zone, where a near-complete radio blackout is enforced over thousands of square kilometers. Eliminating human-based radio signals avoids interfering with a giant telescope that has sometimes been used to monitor the intergalactic radio waves constantly beaming down on us from space, in hopes of finding signs of intelligent life. Perhaps paradoxically, many Americans who have diagnosed themselves with EHS have moved here because of the government prohibition on man-made radio waves. Diane Schou and Jennifer Wood, who appear in the film, told stories of discovering Green Bank as if it were a lifesaving oasis in the desert. They believed their self-diagnoses with near-religious fervor, and had made great sacrifices to move there. Although Schou lives in a quite comfortable, custom-modified house, she rarely sees her husband, who works halfway across the country in Iowa. Wood abandoned an architectural career and almost all the trappings of contemporary life (she owns a car) to live in a tiny wooden cabin without electricity or plumbing.

Are these people simply incapable of coping with modern life, and so flee a society that has become too dense with communication and information? Or have they correctly identified the source of the almost absurdly diverse array of maladies that EHS sufferers report: everything from migraines and tinnitus to numbness, joint pain, weight loss, exhaustion and gas? Science has so far failed to find support for their claims, to which many answer that because the curing of their condition would require abandoning mobile telephony and the wireless internet, twin drivers of the global economy of the last twenty-five years, great forces are aligned against them. Perhaps it is no surprise that EHS sufferers can seem paranoid and conspiracy-minded.

What We Don't See is a kind of documentary science-fiction, proposing an alternate future, one already inhabited by Schou and Wood, who both say they would like to warn us about the path that we are on. 

On her last day in Green Bank, I asked Katharina whether, after a year spent in the company of electronically tormented people, she had grown more or less convinced that the phenomenon is real. It's a question she carefully avoids addressing in her film. “I'm much more certain it's a problem,” she said, quickly. 

Then I asked the cinematographer, Judith Benedikt, the same question. She said “I'm afraid I feel the opposite. At first, I thought, maybe.... But not any more.” But back at home in New York, I had a ten-month-old baby in the house. Ruby. It was hard not to say to myself: What if? For a couple of weeks, every night before going to bed, I carefully turned off all the cellphones, the computer and the router. Did we sleep better? Some nights I thought so, but gradually I got out of the habit. It was too much trouble.


On the Streets with Camilo J. Vergara

Standing on the corner of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and 130th St., in Manhattan, a good approximation of the geographic dead center of Harlem, the photographer Camilo José Vergara is looking around with a puzzled expression on his face. At 70, he's been photographing and rephotographing the streets, landmarks and avenues here for more than forty years, and he knows every corner. Now he is all but scratching his head. "I wanted us to look at something," he says. He's been giving me a tour of the latest incarnation of "new" Harlem. "But I'm not seeing it." Whatever it was is gone. He seems truly distraught: "It's just not there. That's why it was so fucking disorienting!" We hurry back up the sidewalk and across the street. On the east side of the Avenue, stretching for two full city blocks, is a wall of blue-painted plywood fencing, marking an enormous construction site. It is as if a huge tree has been felled in the forest, so that along the north side of 132nd St. the low winter sun shines warmly on the red brick and brownstone of classic Harlem. Through a cutout in the fence can be seen a vast hole in the ground, lined with the cement of a new foundation. "This was the Lafayette Theater. Right here. And it's gone.”

To describe the Chilean-born Vergara solely as a photographer is to minimize his extraordinary achievement. Part ethnographer, part sociologist, obsessive documentarian and full-time chronicler of the declining American city, Vergara has been fully embraced neither by the world of art photography nor by that of journalism or academia. Taken alone, his images often appear mundane, little more than generic streetscapes populated by minorities and the small, peripheral businesses of the American urban fabric: hair salons, corner bodegas, greasy spoons and burger joints. “A photographer is somebody who cares about making beautiful pictures,” Vergara says. “I'm not that.” Despite this demurral, which I only coaxed out of him after sharing a couple bottles of fine red on my back deck,  Vergara has published six major photo books, and in 2002 he was the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called “genius award.” In July 2013 he became the first photographer ever to be honored with the National Humanities medal. But in his latest book, Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto, he writes that when he began focusing his lens on the built environment he was dismissed as “a real-estate photographer.” It's a line I think he might have gotten from his good friend Ben Katchor, fellow genius-award recipient and the creator of the sublime comic strip character Julius Knipl. Eerily, like Knipl, who Katchor created years before the two met, Vergara's daily routine is to go out into America's cities with a camera and take pictures, largely, of buildings. Looked at as a whole his enormous archive is an unequaled and irreplaceable catalog of the vicissitudes of an urban United States routinely overlooked, downplayed and marginalized.

Over the past few years, I've gone out a few times with Camilo as a sort of chauffeur-sidekick. My late-lamented little red pickup truck was already so battered that any extra dents Vergara made standing on the roof to take pictures merely added to its aura. A trip we made together to Camden, NJ was something like driving through an episode of The Wire. Entirely unlike the real-estate boom town that is Harlem today, the small and shrinking city is a dingy, derelict place just across the river from Philadelphia. As we drove past crumbling houses and weed-choked sidewalks, he explained that “Camden has always only existed to service the needs of Philadelphia.” Once it housed print shops, shipbuilders and light manufacturing, but the jobs, and even entire industries, began to dry up in the 1960s. Now, on some of the streets Vergara had me drive along, the only signs of economic life were prostitutes and streams of crack and heroin dealers who jumped down off of rotting porches to approach the car, confident that nobody other than a customer would ever bother to cruise their notorious block. On several occasions, Vergara pointed his camera into a vacant lot, aligning the view with the help of slides made on previous trips, and showing modest brick houses where there were now piles of rubble. The city seemed to be disappearing before our eyes.

On another trip, to Jersey City, behind the vast high-school that looks down onto the traffic waiting to pass through the Holland tunnel, we discovered a rather sad and unkempt 9/11 memorial. Vergara observed that it had probably begun its pre-ordained decline as soon as it had been installed and celebrated, almost as soon as some gaggle of earnest potentates had wandered off after a moment of silence and some minor speechifying. A plinth that perhaps once held a flagpole, complete with rusty bolt holes, now held a granite monument that had clearly been commissioned from a tombstone carver. It sat in the sort of tucked-away and neglected area used by students as a place to sneak away and share a joint. Two plastic tubs containing weeds and dead houseplants completed the tableau. 

Again and again Vergara returns to the same streets and ghettos. He has worked primarily in New York City, Newark and Camden, NJ, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Richmond, CA, always in inner city neighborhoods that rarely make the news for much other than violent crime. He has documented housing schemes built and demolished, the slow deterioration of entire blocks, the rising tide of gentrification and the puddles of poverty left when that tide goes out. His groups of images, charting a single building or stretch of sidewalk over decades, become miniature time-lapse documentaries, simultaneously about nothing while encapsulating everything from fashion and diet to urban planning and city politics. In these pictures, sometimes taken decades apart, Vergara demonstrates the same relationship with specific modest buildings that most people only have with their children. He notes their tiny advances, their gradual changes, and he documents them. It's a strangely intimate relationship with his urban surroundings. The fonts lettering the storefront churches, the meals advertised for sale, the peeling paint and the shoes on the feet of the passersby suggest the ebb and flow of aspirations, achievements and illusions. “By taking a picture of a building,” says Vergara, “you begin to establish a trajectory.”


Coming soon to a vacant lot near you. Condos! Three views of the Lafayette Theater site courtesy of and © Camilo J. Vergara.

Back on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, Vergara seems to take the disappearance of the Lafayette Theater personally. It's part of what he calls the “Disneyfication” of the neighborhood. Harlem is being sanitized, he suggests, its rich history and architecture erased by condominiums, its legacy concentrated in a few untouchable icons like the “world famous” Apollo Theater, the emblem of Harlem on its most famous street, 125th. “We've designated a place to be the repository of history, so we can change the rest,” Vergara explains. “The survivors become more powerful. It's like wealth, it's like an inheritance.” It is interesting to note that the disappeared Lafayette was the first New York theater to integrate racially, as early as 1912, more than twenty years earlier than the Apollo. While Vergara agrees that the new Harlem of luxury condos and espresso bars offers a better standard of living than the one of burnt-out tenements and trash-strewn vacant lots that he started photographing in the early 1970s, he feels acutely a tension between the destruction of the historical landscape and the preservation of culture. In this way his work writes an alternative history, one that questions our dominant economic and political assumptions that equate progress with expansion and development. 125thStreet, once an ever-evolving jumble of mom and pop shops, soul-food eateries and African hair-braiding palaces, was a place with its cultural DNA engraved onto the landscape. In the new Harlem, traces of that landscape linger, but the view is dominated by many of the same huge national chain stores and franchises that are to be found in any saccharine suburban strip-mall. Near the former Lenox Lounge, another shuttered landmark farther south, Vergara gestures across the street. “I have pictures of a guy standing in a yard on this block, next to a scarecrow,” he says. “And now it's a Starbucks."

A weathered MLK on the streets of Red Hook (not a Camilo Vergara)

The gentrification of Harlem is only one of countless stories Vergara is able to tell with his enormous archive of images, and they aren't all about the ebb and flow of neighborhoods. A 2012 exhibition at the New York Historical Society showed murals of Martin Luther King Jr. painted on walls all over the United States. Just the varied contexts in which the untouchable civil rights hero was to be found is fertile ground for sociologists. In latino neighborhoods, MLK appeared browner skinned, in the company of notable latinos. Other, early murals show him with Malcolm X; more recent ones show him with Barack Obama. A timeline of black heroes emerges from looking at the images, with the others, the not-Kings, going in and out of fashion, but always basking in King's glory. In How the Other Half Worships, (Rutgers University Press, 2005) Vergara mines the typology of inner-city storefront churches. The book is a demographic goldmine that charts the hopes and aspirations of faith on a low budget. Modest cinderblock buildings make humble attempts at spires. Cornices and stained glass windows are installed, renovated, then obliterated. Signage changes from hebrew, to english, to spanish. “A one shot view of anything is not that interesting, because what does it say?” Vergara asked me, rhetorically. “It says, well there are beautiful things here, or there are interesting things here, but it doesn't give you any sense of time. And that, after all, is what really gives meaning to things.”

I'm grateful to my old friend Alice Arnold, who first introduced me to Vergara's work, almost fifteen years ago. 

Camilo has written me with a couple of corrections. I had him down as 71 years old, but apparently had added an as-yet unlived year. I have corrected his age, above. He also wrote, in defense of Camden, that the city "was not there to serve the needs of Philly. It was a world recording capital, one of the largest shipbuilding centers in the US, a center of the leather industry and of the Ham radio industry. In its time, a little silicon valley." All of this is likely true, but I have not corrected the somewhat contradictory quote, which comes directly from my notebook. From job-lot printing, toxic dumping and mob-controlled carting to crack-dealing and streetwalking, Camden has a plenty long tradition of being a tortured industrial appendix to Philadelphia. 


Rara ap soti! (The rara is going out!) Recent adventures in sound recording, Part One.

My last trip to Haiti represented the fulfillment of a long-term dream. At least, I hoped that it would. Ever since spending several hours back in 1996 marching from Kenscoff to Furcy while recording a band of drumming, singing, bamboo-didgeridoo playing musicians named Foula I have wanted to make a dedicated trip there to immerse myself in the phenomenon known as Rara. What I then interpreted as music was raw and percussive and unstoppable. The experience of hiking up a mountain surrounded by the constant performance of musicians and singers, under Caribbean heat, resulted in an almost spiritual loss of the self; after some time the marching and the driving beat had no beginning, and no anticipated end, and in my participation in this ever-growing parade I began to feel as if I were a small part of a giant organism, not an individual, but an interchangeable ant in an ant-army. To march with that crew was to viscerally experience Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power to feel both the implicit terror and the enabling thrill of communal action. It was a strange experience, not only to lose one's self in a mass of humanity, but to welcome that loss. Just before Easter, thanks to the persistent encouragement and support of a good friend and fellow Haitiphile, I packed up my sound equipment and flew down to Port au Prince. There was no guarantee, however, that I would be able to locate and obtain the permission to record an raras. My time was short, and pre-production had been minimal.

The first photograph I made, taken out the car window shortly after pulling out of the airport in Port au Prince. I find that within hours in Haiti I become inured to these sorts of scenes, and no longer think them photo-worthy. 

Although we outsiders use "rara" generally to refer to the genre of music, a rara is much more than that. Properly speaking, it is a kind of ambulatory vodou ceremony, with an important ritual significance, and dedicated tasks it must accomplish. To come upon one making its way through the Haitian countryside is a truly special and spectacular occurrence. The musicians are lead by flagbearers, and by two queens, also holding banners. Sometimes a gloomy figure, shrouded in black, goes before them with a broom, sweeping away any evil powders and poisons that competing raras might have scattered earlier to trip them up. The crowd is controlled by a kind of majordomo, cracking a whip and often wearing a skirt made from dozens of brightly colored silk scarves hanging from his belt. The percussion can be heard at a great distance; one can wander through the fields following the sound of the drums until the parade is located. A rara is, all at once, joyful, militaristic, focussed, chaotically disorganized, musical and cacophonic, voluntary and obligatory, serene and warlike.

Waiting for the rara. Traditionally, rara instrumention is composed of two drums, and five "bamboo" of varying lengths, and, therefore, pitches. Today these are usually made from lengths of PVC tubing, actual bamboo having become scarce, along with the knowledge of how to craft instruments out of it.

Although similar pedestrian groups with similar instrumentation start going out shortly after Christmas (usually beginning on the dia de los Reyes), the street revels of the pre-Carnival period are essentially festive, and it is incorrect to refer to them, as I often have, as raras. These are Bann a Pye, literally "foot-bands," with none of the exigencies of vodou invested in them. One might think of them as secular while raras are religious. Rara is strictly a Lenten phenomenon, either a thumb in the eye of the slave-master and his forty days of austerity or their syncretic expression.

For all your Jacmel lodging needs.

Without tremendous forethought I had settled on Jacmel as a great place to begin this project, and on the Tuesday before Easter I drove across the mountains of Haiti's southern claw and installed myself there at the sublime Hotel Florita. Raras go out everywhere the length and breadth of Haiti, and even in Haitian enclaves in the Dominican Republic.* Leogane, about halfway between Port au Prince is Jacmel, is considered a particular stronghold, but I had heard that its annual rara festival had become rather commercialized. The Artibonite valley (Latibonit) is generally considered to be a stronghold of vodou, and I might try to spend a future rara season there. But in Jacmel I have friends. In the late 1990s I lived there for two months, working on Charles Najman's film Les Illuminations de Madame Nerval. The town is also traditionally considered to be Haiti's artistic and literary capital, and it is the home of the Ciné Institute, the film school where I have twice gone to teach sound recording. I had already discussed the possibility of recording local raras with a former student of mine, Bayard Jean Bernard, and he had sent some encouraging reports of the season's activity.

Faith of Job art supply. Also, have faith, the rara will go out....

Nonetheless, Raras do not have websites where they advertise their sortees, and I was rather nervous as to whether or not the trip would pay off. Then, shortly after I collapsed in my hotel bed on Tuesday night, I heard a rara moving through the streets of Jacmel. Although exhaustion overwhelmed me, as well as the fact that I had not yet unpacked and prepared my gear, it seemed a good omen.

My room at the Florita, in which I lounged underneath the mosquito net listening to raras pass by in the streets of Jacmel.

On Wednesday, I got together with Bayard. "I'm ready," I said. "What can we line up for this evening?" He made a few phone calls. He shook his head. "It sounds like everyone went out last night," he said, "I'm not sure what else will happen before Friday...."

Bayard gives me the bad news.

*I am unsure whether rara persists within the Haitian communities of Cuba, but it seems likely, as vodou is widely practiced in them.