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Haiti From Our Photographer’s Eyes

Wednesday January 27th, 2010

The day after the Haiti earthquakes, The New York Times asked Michael McElroy to shoot the reactions of Haitian residents in Little Haiti, a Miami neighborhood.

One day later, with most flights cancelled to Port Au Prince, Michael managed to find a flight to the Dominican Republic, where he caught a ride with an ABC News crew across the border into Haiti. This is what he experienced:

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Wonderful Machine:

What was it like in Haiti?

Michael McElroy:

My arrival in Haiti was shocking…the amount of people in the streets, people wandering around wounded from the earthquake (broken limbs, open head wounds etc.)…people were now living on the streets for fear of another earthquake or due to the loss of their homes.

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Early on I had visited the UN compound at the airport and had seen all the planes landing with aid from around the world but on the streets people were hungry and hadn’t eaten for days.  As the days went by, things started to grow more and more tense, people started looting and the Haitian police handled it in their usual way with violence: beating and shooting people.

The bodies recovered from the rubble began to pile up and were left in the streets and the smell was overwhelming. It was everywhere, you couldn’t escape it. [The smell] lingered with me days after I was back in Miami, on my clothes, in my nose. Most Haitians were using bandannas and shirts to cover their faces and using toothpaste under their noses to mask the smell.

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Port Au Prince was just devastated but the people still remained optimistic about finding people alive and rebuilding, despite having their world collapse. I never expected to see what i saw, it looked like a war zone, the amount of destruction was unimaginable. Over the last few days I was there, things little by little seemed to get better, aid was slowly getting to the people, more doctors were treating the wounded. This tragedy will transform Haiti: there are 1 million people expected to leave the city, there are an estimated 200,000 dead. I don’t know how many people have had arms or legs amputated or children who lost their parents. This is definitely something that will take decades to recover from.

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Wonderful Machine:

How do you prepare yourself from being overwhelmed by emotion in these scenarios? You obviously can’t help everyone around you, and your work is to document, but how do you reconcile the two on shoots like this?

Michael McElroy:

In situations like these I guess in a sense I try and detach myself from what’s going on around me and just try and be as unobtrusive as one can be in an environment such as this. At the moment if I thought about what had just happened to Haiti and its people, it would have become overwhelming.

It is obviously very difficult for a person to be somewhere where death is all around you, where children have lost their parents and families have lost their homes and possessions. It’s conflicting sometimes because you’re trying to be an observer to tell a story, trying to not get involved but then you see somebody who is clearly suffering and needs help, so you help because you’re human.

…as far as dealing with what I saw, I haven’t or at least haven’t had to because you’re always busy and your mind’s on something else! I’m sure down the road it will be something I will have to figure out…

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Socialdocumentary.net features more of Michael’s Haitian work on their home page

Wonderful Machine:

By the way, you mentioned [in an email] the school that your friend had founded. Is there a link to a website to make donations? I think most people feel safer donating through large organizations like the Red Cross, but I’d be happy to link to his site or mention how to contact him.

Michael McElroy:

My friend who started the school is Michael Laughlin. He is a photographer with the Sun Sentinel. During the elections he was shot in the neck and pulled to safety by some Port Au Prince residents as a result he adopted two of them and started a school. The school was completely destroyed but all the kids are safe. He funds this mostly out of his own pocket! I know any help he could get would mean the world to him and the kids he is looking out for. His email is michaellaughlin@hotmail.com.

-Neil Binkley

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