12 January 2010, 16:53. The capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, is devastated by an earthquake measuring 7.0Mw. It affects 3 million people, and kills more than 220,000.
25 July 2010. I’m standing in front of Port-au-Prince’s Catholic cathedral. It’s half destroyed. The roof is completely caved in. Only a few walls are standing.
I photograph the ruins, and the empty spaces around it. In a courtyard, a crucifix rises intact from the ground. It emanates piety, giving a sense of hope to those able to lift their eyes from the ruins.
I notice a makeshift fence of metal sheeting around the cathedral. Actually no, it’s not just metal sheeting. They’re houses, homes to more than 20 families.
Home is where we feel safe. But these houses are nothing more than a cement floor, a metal roof, and walls made from plastic sheets. Inside these improvised dwellings, there are so many stories. Of men, women, children and the elderly.
Despite the ruins, the sense of faith here seems unshakeable. The people are quite literally leaning on the church for survival. It’s all that is left. This earthquake exacerbated what was already a dire situation in Haiti: it’s one of the world’s poorest countries, with 80% of the population living in extreme poverty.
I don’t hesitate to get closer to the houses. I take a panoramic shot of the entire row of metal and plastic sheeting, the half-ruined cathedral in the background.
I decide to leave. But as I do, a child appears – the child on the right of the photo. “Come, come,” he says in English – how he learned it I have no idea – gesturing at me to follow. It’s decided, you absolutely must see this, he seems to say. I take a picture, and follow him towards one of the houses. His family’s house. My heart beats faster the closer we get. The urgency coming from this child is palpable.
Once we get there, the child gestures at me to look inside. So I do. I see a woman holding a small baby. At that moment, my heart stops. It looks dead. I think this is why the child called me over.
The woman leaves her house with the baby in her arms and sits down on a rickety chair with another child. They’re all her children. No one speaks. We look at each other in silence.
I don’t take any pictures. My attention is on the baby. I can’t work out whether it is alive or dead. I don’t want to ask.
I throw another anguished glance inside the dwelling. I see a bed made of bricks with a sheet over it, some plastic bags, a few pieces of clothing and a couple of vegetables. It’s all they have.
I decide to remember this family as they are now: united. I take a single photo from above. They’re all in it, including the baby. I still don’t know whether he’s alive or dead.
As I compose the shot, I feel the eyes of the child on me. I can feel him saying, “Here, this is what I wanted to show you. How we live, and my baby brother”.
This child gave me the gift of being witness to his life, and a silence so profound I can still hear it today. I pay homage to him, and that desolate land that my camera lens captured in the wake of their tragedy. No, actually, in the depths of their tragedy.