I had my first negative, personal experience in Haiti today. I’m not sure if I should tell the story, because the whole goal of me blogging and writing from here has been to help change the image of Haiti overseas. And yet, it is what it is, right?
There have been a lot of little daily annoyances, but nothing personally alarming. To be fair, what happened today was partly my fault. I got a little cocky; I got a little careless.
I walked towards Champ de Mars in downtown Port-au-Prince to get photographs of the last preparations for Carnaval but also for photos of the other part of town which I had never been to. This is the rougher part of the downtown area – more people in the streets, fewer touristy spots. I especially wanted to photograph the ruins of the Notre Dame Cathedral, which I had seen out the corner of my eye when riding through Champ de Mars a few days earlier.
I walked through Champ de Mars and through the park towards the ruins with no problems. When I got there, the image was even more stark than I could have imagined. The entire roof of the Cathedral came down in the earthquake but you still have one or two stained glass windows almost perfectly intact. Several displaced people were still encamped around the ruins; a commentary on just how much reconstruction efforts had stalled. In its prime, I bet the Cathedral was an imposing building. Today, the only people worshipping there were an informal church on the wrong side of a high fence, under a USAID tarp – a congregation of about 30 led by a man but made almost entirely of women.
This is where I made my first mistake. I was so caught up in taking in the scenery and plotting out my next shot that I didn’t fully account for my whereabouts. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t waving my camera about – I’m still a Nairobian after all – but I wasn’t hurriedly putting it away either. Getting away with taking multiple pictures at Champ de Mars this weekend made me cocky. I paid so much attention to the church congregation that I didn’t fully account for all the displaced people, or noticing whether or not people were watching me.
My second mistake was that when I walked off the main street to take the shots, I communicated with the people there. You never want people to hear your accent. I was dressed pretty low key and no one would have paid attention to me if I had just kept my mouth shut. But I didn’t. Instead I said good morning in my bizarre, mixed up accent, instantly flagging my foreignness.
I walked around the other side of ruins, continuing to take pictures, and there I made my third mistake. Or rather, I made my first mistake a second time around. The place looked calm and chilled so I took that as an invitation to take pictures – there was after all, only a single old lady sitting by the doorway of the church. I kid you not, she was the only person there when I arrived. But by the time I was done taking photographs, there was a troop of people there.
First, there were three kids, all begging me for money, but I said no. Then their older sisters arrived. And then their older sisters older sisters’. And then their older brother. All in all, about 10 people who started out begging quietly for my money, but then it all escalated really quickly and they got super aggressive. They started asking for my watch, and (what sounded like) threatening me when I said no. I could literally sense the moment when the mood changed.
Look, I could have easily taken each of them individually, but collectively? I was out of my depth. Then I did the math on running out of there, recalling the crowd of men and boys who had been yelling around the outside. Add to that the fact that we were already in a dodgy part of town, layered with the fact that I’ve spent the last 10 weeks studying rape, and you get that I was already on edge.
I think I handled it well. Although I put up a significant amount of resistance, in the end, I offered them 50 gourdes (just over 1 USD) and told them they had to share it. Cheeky git that I am, I also left them with a lecture on why they had to share and cooperate, and that we all have to rebuild Haiti together. Saved once again by the stereotype of the poor African.
Cut to, me spending the afternoon skulking around Pétionville, taking sneaky photographs of the street art. Based on that experience, here are my tips for stealth photography in places where the safety of your camera and your person is not guaranteed:
1. Scout the location as far in advance as possible. Note the security situation – how quickly can you get into or out? Can you get help in a hurry? Is it a crowded street? Is it the kind of crowd that will help you if you are attacked, or your attacker?
2. Set up your shot before you take out your camera. (Implied in this is the point that you should know your camera very well. Figure out what tweaks need to be done before you have to do them).
3. Notice any open stores or alleys that you can hide in in order to take the shot. Use them.
4. This worked really well for me this afternoon. Find your spot, and then just stand there. Spend time taking in the traffic flow, waiting for the perfect moment to swoop in. How long? Long enough to that anyone who noticed you arrive will lose interest, but not so long that you look creepy and regain their attention.
5. Don’t talk to the people around the area that you’re photographing. Just don’t draw attention to yourself. (Dress like a transient if you must).
6. I was photographing street art – the best time for this is during public holidays or during the weekend, when there’s low traffic in the streets and less chance of harassment.
7. Walk away quickly. Put your camera back in its nondescript bag (I carry one of those reusable shopping bags) and walk away at a fast but controlled pace. If there’s a store that you can go into a little down the ways, do it.
8. Get insurance. A camera is just a piece of property after all.
Remember that 90% of people in the world are good honest people, just trying to earn a decent buck. But don’t be like me and lose sight of the 10%. In the end, we can’t control everything that happens to us. But we can control how we react to this.
Street Art in Port Au Prince