Champs de Mars

Carlos in his office at the Presidential Palace

Brillant came by a little after 11 and we set out by tap-tap for the Champs de Mars and Fort National tent camps downtown near the still ruined Presidential Palace.  As he always does now, either out of respect, concern over my, to his eyes, advanced age, or, most likely, a combination of both, he arranged for us to sit up front with the driver.  After a half-hour or so of creeping through Port-au-Prince’s congested, but lively, streets, we disembarked within sight of the Palace and our destination. 

Walking along the edge of the Champs de Mars camp directly across the street from the Presidential Palace, we came upon a woman cooking a large pot of soup and Brillant asked her if I could take her picture.  Initially, she said no, but then said I could if we paid her something.  Brillant tried to explain to her the nature of my work as a journalist, but she was unimpressed by the possibility that the pictures I take now might at some point in the distant future benefit her, as well as the people of Haiti in general.  And, honestly, I see her point. 

How many millions of pictures have foreign photographers taken of Haitian misery over the years without producing any improvement that this woman can perceive in her own life?  Nevertheless, in spite my sympathy for her point of view, I am a photographer here to take pictures of life a year after the earthquake, so Brillant and I needed to find a way.  But by now we had begun to draw a crowd, with several people just asking for money,  so we walked off.  As we did so, Brillant whispered to me, Don’t ever put your hand in your pocket.  If you do, they think you are going to give them money.  I wasn’t aware that I had done so, but I suppose I had, probably in an unconscious gesture of self protection.

Once the people asking us for money gave up and dropped away, we plunged into the camp proper.  But it was always the same story, people either didn’t want their pictures taken at all, or only if we paid them.  In addition there were several young men who seemed angered by our, meaning my, very presence.  After about ten minutes of this, thoroughly frustrated, we moved back out of the camp not far from where we had begun.  This situation of being unable to openly take pictures had now risen to a new level.  While the requests for money to be photographed was nothing new, we had always been able to find some people willing to be photographed just for the sake of being photographed.  It was at this point that Carlos approached us. 

Pre-Carlos picture

A young man, probably in his mid to late twenties, he came from his “shop” in front of the fence surrounding the Presidential Palace, bringing a sample of his wares, watercolor paintings on canvas of Haitian scenes, and a proposition.  After introducing himself, he continued in English. 

I have been watching you and I see you are having problems.  I live in this camp and everyone knows me.  If you will buy one of my paintings for ten dollars, I will take you through the camp and see that you can take pictures.  You pay me after you take the pictures. 

My initial reaction to this kind of thing, given my suspicious nature, is always to look for the con.  But by now I was fairly desperate, and the fact that he was offering to trade a purchase for his service as a guide, and to wait to complete the transaction until I was finished taking pictures, made me think he was probably on the level.  Brillant and I withdrew to consult and decided that if he confirmed that there would be no payment until I’d taken the pictures, we would go for it.  So long as we didn’t give him money up front, the only danger was that he was luring us into the camp to be robbed, which, given the reported prevalence of gangs in this area, was a possibility. 

Okay, I buy the painting after I take the pictures, correct? 

Yes, yes, you don’t give me any money now. 

Carlos presents his wife and infant son

With that confirmation, we followed him in and he did seem to know, if not actually be related to, almost everyone we encountered.  With only a couple of exceptions, everyone he asked allowed me to photograph them, and no one asked for money, although there was one little guy who trailed along and did ask for a handout at the end.  But Carlos was almost as good as his word, and at one point even asked if I wanted to take more pictures.  When I said more is always better, he led us to another area of the camp.

Champs de Mars shower

The “almost” came to light, as it usually does, at the point of payment.  Carlos offered me my choice of four paintings, two by him and two by a friend, and I chose one of his of a beach scene.  Then he tried to get me to pay him twenty dollars, quickly backing off to fifteen when I didn’t respond and adding that he needed the extra fiver to buy meat for his family, and eventually retreating to only if I wanted to.  I gave him a twenty dollar bill and he gave me five ones in change, and I consider it good value for the money.  I do wonder, though, if his family got that meat, and if he shared the other ten with his extended family in the camp.

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About vichinterlangphotojournalist

Vic Hinterlang has been a photojournalist for the past 25 years. He has worked in Central America, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Israel and the U.S. His photos have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, The Economist and The Texas Observer among other publications.
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