En Bas la Ville Gaël Turine visits Port au Prince to tell a tale of dark and light

The Caribbean state of Haiti was ravaged by an earthquake in 2010, which left 230 000 people dead and another 1.8 million homeless. Rampant corruption and political chaos coupled with extreme poverty and a cholera outbreak following the quake, have seen little improve over the last seven years. Golden Clover Award winner Gaël Turine shot the following images on the streets of Port au Prince with his Leica M Typ 240. The visual language of his series not only reveals the severity of the situation in Haiti but also speaks of the soul of the country’s capital – A vivid tale of chaos, light and poetry.

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During your childhood and early career as a photographer you lived in the Comoros Islands (Indian Ocean), Madagascar, Angola, Afghanistan and Eritrea, these are n exactly top ten tourist destinations. How have your travels influenced, who you are as a person and a photographer?

Living in the Comoros Islands was a defining experience for me. My brother and I were deeply touched and impressed by all we saw, observed and felt there. We were discovering another world with a great deal of freedom. I still remember that I started dreaming about creating nature films and travel stories upon my return from Comoros Islands. To me, this experience was like a profound internal reset. All the defining choices in my life that followed were influenced by my experience there. Of course, the first trips I undertook as a student of photography and subsequently as a young photographer, brought me to “unexpected” places. I wanted to see first hand and report on the living conditions in difficult places. Both my parents were already involved in documentary pursuits (radio and film) and they encouraged me to be interested in the realities of our world. They were also quite politicized and shared with their two sons some values that I wanted to exploit in my professional work.

You began your work in Haiti creating a photo book on the theme of Vaudou. What drew you to Haiti? And what did you learn during this project?

My girlfriend used to work for MSF (the NGO – Doctors Without Borders) in Haiti and I wanted to travel to see her but also because I was already attracted to the island. I went there for one month, during July, when Vaudou pilgrimages take place. I took a lot of photos of what I saw but I had no real interest in, or knowledge of, the religion. Then, when I returned, the story got published here and there but I had no real clue what it was all about. A few months later, I applied for a Belgian grant program and this 25,000 EUR grant covered all expenses to make my Vaudou book. I shot in West Africa, Haiti and the United States during a total of 11 different trips, over a period of five years. The final images were shot a few months after the terrible 2010 earthquake. I learnt a lot about Vaudou and subsequently how to create a massive body of work, produce a “big” book, take a show on tour and publish the story in a variety of different magazines. It definitely shaped me as a photographer. I had previously had a book published, carried out an assignment and produced personal works but the Vaudou project took me to the next level in terms of both personal and professional experience.

As you mention, a catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti in 2010 and left 230,000 people dead. How would you describe the aftermath, rebuilding and aid efforts following this national disaster?

The aftermath is still going on and I don’t see real and concrete improvements. The huge camps housing those, who lost their homes, have been dismantled but the main issues such as health, sanitation, education, transportation and construction remain at the same level of complete inadequacy as they were on the day after the earthquake hit. The lack of response and interest from the local political and economic authorities, combined with the underwhelming statements of intent and aid efforts from the international community, haven’t met the Haitian population’s expectations, as they wait, longingly for a decent life. How is it possible that such a country hasn’t exploded yet? I am at a loss to explain how the population have found the energy and patience to not instigate a civil war against the country’s elite and the institutions of the state.

There is a slightly clichéd view of Haiti as a place of extreme poverty and suffering mixed with superstition and mysticism. You once described the atmosphere in Port au Prince as similar to being in a fever. Can you expand on that?

The soul of Port au Prince is very present and imposes its power on all its visitors. Yet this sense of fever is always mixed with light. The fever comes from the unexpected mix of chaos, light and poetry, in the way people act and talk to each other. Almost all of the Port au Prince population, at least in the huge downtown neighborhoods, “survive” and dedicate all their energy to make things work. The structural chaos in Haiti impacts everyone’s life but also shapes daily life as well. There is “too much” humanity, “too much” intensity, “too much” strength in these streets. Port au Prince, every day, wakes up, stretches, bursts, heats up, runs and gets angry. But every day, the same city shouts, sings, kisses and smiles. It is testament to the fact that light and poetry are at the very heart of the city’s atmosphere.

Your collection of images shows extreme poverty but the traditional sense of hopelessness is conspicuous in its absence. Instead the interplay of color, light and shadow lends your images a more poetic sense of beauty. Was this a conscious decision you made while shooting and if so, how did you go about translating this desire into the resulting images.

I wanted to take a step back from classic photojournalism to create this particular series. I didn’t want produce one more editorial story on one particular issue such as security, poverty or health. I had seen too many of them. I also realized that there were no photographers working in the streets of Port au Prince, for obvious reasons. But the real city exists on exactly these streets and I thought there was no other way to document the city. As a result of collaborating with the French novelist Laurent Gaudé and my rejection of the visual language of classic photojournalism to transmit my feelings toward the city, I went for a more “impressionist” approach and narrative focus. Even if I had a lot of great moments with people I met and talked to, there are no captions, no descriptions. The mood and the ambience of the city can be revealed in images, which reveal the inner organization and design of chaos.

The format of the book En Bas la Ville would also suggest a move away from classic photo reportage. How and why did you come up with the idea of employing the leporello?

The graphic designer had previously joined me to conduct workshops for young Haitian photographers. She had her own experience, vision and sensibility towards the city. When I asked her if she would propose a layout design for the book, she came up with the idea of doing a leporello. Her design pays homage to the cinematographic style of the street scenes I captured, to the perpetual movement, taking place in the same streets, offering highly surprising juxtapositions and combinations of actions in one single location, and finally because of the endless and repetitive cycle of events affecting the country. We thought that the fold-out form of the book also fit pretty well to the visual language of the series, offering the possibility to recreate a new sequence by playing with the leporello.

Your images are testament to the rare access and intimacy you achieved. Do you speak creole? And how did you go about gaining the trust of your subjects?

I understand creole but I would never dare to speak it. Nevertheless, I think I know the city well and I have found my own way to behave, move and talk to people. For most of the time I was in Port au Prince I was accompanied by a workshop student, a friend, or another person, who wanted to walk the street with me. Sometimes, the graphic designer and myself went out on our own for a walk and people were pretty surprised to see us walking in the streets. In these very moments, no one would come to the conclusion I am a photographer. On top of that, a Leica camera is the perfect camera to have. It is discreet and looks like an old fashioned camera. I simply never looked like a photographer and I think that helped a lot.

What camera and lens did you use and what do you see as the advantages of using this particular set up for photojournalism?

I would not consider this work a typical form of photojournalism. I shot with a Leica M Typ 240, with 35 and 28mm lenses. One body only, two lenses. I never took a camera bag or any back-up batteries. I needed a very light set up and to never appear as if I were a photographer. I wanted to achieve complete immersion in the world surrounding me. Being a photographer in the streets of Port au Prince, I needed to establish the strange mixture of discretion and, in some moments, a willingness to show my presence.

In some moments I would have to insist in the face of a refusal to participate from the people around me, to disobey the impulse for you to leave, to stop shooting. This is played out in the human interactions you engage in and relies on subtle, often unspoken communication. Confronted with closed faces and suspicious looks, we, the photographers, must find a way to trigger a smile, a look, so that something becomes possible. Sometimes it is necessary to jump in headfirst, take a turn down the small alleys of the shantytowns and not give anybody the time or opportunity to question your presence. Other times you have to talk a lot and not do anything else. Everything comes down to a matter of judgment. An error of judgment can quickly pose a real problem.

It is not really possible for me to merge into my surroundings in Port au Prince. I am a white guy in the eyes of the locals and as such, incongruous by nature. The street sees you, everywhere, all the time. We must accept our own presence, in light of the circumstances, and answer for this presence. This is without doubt the most exhausting aspect of shooting in the streets of the Haitian capital.

You have visited Haiti regularly over the last three years and even started running photo workshops for locals. Can you tell us more about this project?

I was on assignment, back in 2013, for a French magazine when I met the Fokal Foundation team, a local project, supported by the Open Society Foundation and some other institutions. I proposed to them that I would conduct a workshop for documentary photography. We rapidly agreed it shouldn’t be a one-off workshop but a series. They found the necessary budget to invite me several times, accompanied by a videographer, a graphic designer or even a magazine photo editor. The main idea was to improve the local participants’ photographic skills and nurture a good sense of visual storytelling. The goal is to provide foreign and local NGO’s based in Haiti, all kinds of media and the possibility to hire a Haitian photographer rather than a foreigner, like me. The students, who have since formed the K2D collective of photographers, got the opportunity to work on individual and group projects. Two of them got printed and distributed. Visibility (online and in print) was also part of our aim, as the only way for them to promote their work abroad and increase their chances of getting assignments. Even if I have travelled a lot in Haiti, I have the feeling I learnt so much about the country, the capital city and its culture over the many days and weeks I spent with the students. They definitely participated in expanding my knowledge and understanding of the country.

What advice can you offer your fellow photographers and fledgling photojournalists?

The most difficult aspect is the viability of the job. It’s a pretty hard profession and I feel rather uncomfortable giving advice. Yet despite all the hurdles one must overcome, I believe that the number of defining experiences anyone will have through living this profession justifies the effort one must make in taking the leap, at least attempting to make a career of it. My main piece of advice for young photographers is to be very focused, not on their obsessions and need for recognition, but very focused on their intentions, on what they want to tell, what audience they want to reach and how they wish to present their work. They should aim for a sense of coherence from the very beginning, with the conception of a story, through to the final presentation.

What are you currently working on and what do you have in the pipeline, in terms of future projects?

One more personal project I am working on at the moment deals with “unknown” walls of separation around the world. I’ve worked on two cases to date and would like to collect more images and stories in various regions with different political, economical, cultural and religious contexts.


The images featured are a selection taken from the accordion book En Bas la Ville published by Le Bec.

Take a look at more of Gaël’s fascinating work at his website.


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