Students experience Haiti
Published: Monday, February 1, 2010
Updated: Monday, February 1, 2010 21:02
The ring of his cell phone rustled USM photojournalism student David Jackson from his slumber. After the series of beeps slowly aroused him, his lips hung with lethargy as he looked at his phone through eyes squinted, heavy with sleep. The caller was Southern Miss photojournalism professor Clarence Williams.
It was 9 a.m., Jan. 14, two days after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated the areas surrounding Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Jackson answered the phone.
"Are you on your way to Haiti yet?" the Pulitzer Prize winner and mentor of Jackson's said. Following a brief exchange, Jackson decided a trip was in order and started to pack. He sent a joking text message to fellow photo student Eli Baylis, asking if he wanted to accompany Jackson to Haiti. Little did he know that Baylis got the same telephone call that morning.
They began making travel arrangements. They contatcted the Red Cross, various humanitarian and mission organizations and even private charter flight businesses shipping supplies into Port-au-prince – all to no avail.
The students headed to Miami that evening with the thought that a trip to Haiti would be easier from there, and got in touch with Carl Juste and Andre Chung, photojournalist friends they met through Williams.
Juste, an employee of the Miami Herald, had been in Haiti since the day of the quake, but his wife let the students stay with her until they found a way to the disaster.
Plans failed one after another until it looked like the best option was a flight to Jamaica, then a boat ride into Port-au-prince arranged by Chung, who was Haiti-bound to shoot photos for MSNBC.com. But then Jackson and Baylis heard from Dudley Brooks, photo editor of Ebony magazine, that the horror stories floating around photojournalist communities depicting vicious marauders chopping photographers to bits with machetes at the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic were indeed false, as Brooks had just safely completed the land route through the Dominican Republic.
So they flew to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on a commercial flight filled with journalists and humanitarian aid personnel and stayed in a hotel until the next morning.
Chung said he was impressed with the students' success in entering the country into which only aid transportation was allowed – quite the feat for two students with no media credentials who, essentially, left for Haiti on a whim.
"Every time I called them, they were only a step, step-and-a-half behind where I was," the 20-year photojournalism veteran said.
David and Eli paid a taxi the next morning to take them into Haiti. The ride was uneventful, driving through mostly barren wilderness until the border, where helicopters dappled the Carribean sky and buses loaded to the brim with people entering and exiting Haiti clogged the roadways. The border was so inundated with traffic, officials didn't even check their passports.
They had made it. They were in Haiti. It took them more than five days, an exhausted list of contacts and a total of about $600 in airfare, but they had reached their destination.
The first thing they saw in Haiti was a field of cacti amidst several houses in shambles, all underwater from 2008's hurricane season.
"The border looked like ruins," David said. But the border was many miles from the destruction of the earthquake. The students found the trip into Port-au-Prince to look much the same as the border did, as the nation torn with strife hadn't recovered from the last several natural disasters.
But the earthquake's aftermath became apparent to the students when they got within ten miles of Port-au-Prince. Buildings lay in rubble. People lived from tents in the streets and piled bricks nearby to prevent being struck by passing cars. Dead bodies littered the landscape.
It became all too real all too quick. Eli said the disaster's gravity hit him on the return trip from a funeral with Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Pat Farrell in a truck. The truck passed a pile of burning human bodies. Farrell ordered the truck driver to stop. Both photographers leaned out the window and snapped a few quick frames before the truck drove on.
"The funeral was so peaceful," Eli said, adding that the pile of bodies was a stark contrast.
"And that's the first time I'd ever seen bodies being desecrated like that. It was so dehumanizing. The thing that shocked me the most was that we didn't even get out of the truck. It was so nonchalant."
David said one in every fifteen people died in the areas heavily affected by the earthquake.
"Bodies were all over the place and people still had to live there," David said. "Some people dealt with it by piling them in front of the morgue, some people dealt with it by dousing them in gasoline and burning them because everybody was living in the street at that point."
But the danger wasn't over by the time David and Eli got there. They dealt with hazardous conditions nearly everywhere and aftershocks on a daily basis.
The students stayed in the Villa Creole hotel in Pétion-Ville, an affluent suburb of Port-au-Prince. But they slept on the lawn, keeping only their gear inside, because the buildings in the area were structurally compromised, warranting a ban on sleeping indoors. Even this once-well-to-do region of Haiti was brought to its knees by the earthquake, essentially equalizing social class by forcing everyone into the streets.
Eli recalls the first aftershock, which varies in measurement from source to source, when he was standing on a brick road between two concrete walls. The walls shook as if they were about to fall, and nearby palm trees ferociously swayed to and fro.