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