Robert Larson, Haiti
For this feature I interviewed Robert Larson about his experiences shooting in Haiti. He went there to document what was going on after the earthquake, and has had an on-going project about Haiti. The words and images that Robert shared is extremely emotional and powerful, and really shed light on the situation in Haiti as well as the people living there. Read more to see his images as well and his experiences as well.
What inspired you to go to Haiti and was your primary objective to go there?
To Shoot. I had always been fascinated with Haiti, even as a child. I imaged it as a very dark and mysterious place. I was raised in a family that would have considered voodoo to be of the devil. So of course I was enamored.
I had done a lot of traveling between 2005 and 2010 and was beginning to figure out what I did, and did not enjoy photographing. During my trips I would often feel like I had no purpose. There was nothing emotional in the travel images I was taking. A pretty scene here… an interesting face there, oh look at the colors how exotic! Blech. At the same time, when I was home, I craved adventure.
My childhood dog died in 2007, as I was crying and making my way to the backyard… I was unconsciously looking for my camera. I lifted her out from behind her favorite bush, placed her on her bed, and I photographed her. It was therapeutic. Up to that point, it was the saddest moment in my life and I felt it needed to be saved. Not long after, I asked my Grandma and Grandpa if I could photograph them once they had died, they both quite literally said “yes of course”. They actually found it amusing! So when my grandfather passed away, my family and I were there by his side, and again… I photographed the saddest moment in my life. I tend to find beauty and inspiration in sorrow, not just in the images, but by the experiences themselves.
All this to say… when the earthquake struck Haiti, everything came together in a tragic way. I needed to go and take pictures. It was important. On that first trip I took two friends with me. They helped out for a few days at a hospital in Jimani, which is on the Haiti / Dominican border. My friend Matt was an experienced E.M.T. and Jordan was an eager helper. I stayed out of the way.
How is the situation currently in Haiti? Are the Haitians doing better socio-economically or are they still suffering?
I am still educating myself on Haiti’s history and present situation, so I don’t feel comfortable attempting to answer this in detail. They are still suffering, but unfortunately I think the majority of Haitians will always be suffering.
Describe what type of message you are trying to convey for “Waiting for Haiti”.
I don’t want to get very political with the project, but as I continue to visit and spend time with the friends that I have made there… it is impossible to not get frustrated. This is a long term project, and when I say long term I mean that I will be shooting in Haiti until the day I am no longer physically able to. I am doing my best to show things just as they are, without the unnecessary drama that the news photographers always focus on. I have a long long way to go. Decades more to cover. I don’t believe that Haiti will ever change significantly… the outside world will not let the country progress. I hope I am wrong. I want this project to be an ongoing study of the country’s future, whatever it may be.
Out of all the images you shot in Haiti, which image is your personal favorite and why? Tell us the story behind the image you describe.
The picture of my friend Renaldo with his arms in the air and a big smile on his face. My guide and best friend Jeanmary introduced me to his best bud Renaldo on my last visit. He told Renaldo to watch my back when I went out walking around at night to take pictures, and boy did he ever. There was a moment once when I went to go piss behind a bus, I saw a shadow move and I looked over my shoulder to see Renaldo shoving some guys away. He followed and was behind me the whole time, I didn’t even realize it. Regardless of their intentions… which might have been the same as mine, he wouldn’t let them get close to me.
Renaldo and I didn’t talk much because he barely spoke English, but we smiled at each-other a lot and made a ton of jokes back and fourth without using our words. He would give me a big hug every-time I saw him, and right away I could feel his protective inclinations towards the ones he loved. The night I took that picture we were at a neighborhood street party, stink’n drunk. I was dancing like a mad man and he was keeping everyone away from me who he didn’t like the look of.
A couple weeks after I got home to LA, Renaldo was murdered. Four gangsters and a crooked cop went into his shop, tied him up, stabbed him in the head a few times, shot him in the back and then through the mouth. Renaldo was sleeping with a girl, and one of these men had a problem with it. When I look at this picture, it breaks my heart, I barely knew him but I miss him so much.
When you took photos of the locals, did you ask for permission or just shoot? How much did you interact with them, and how did they respond to your camera?
I either ask (Always if it is a picture of an individual), or I at least make it blatantly obvious that I am here, and I am taking pictures. The majority of the time they respond poorly to the fact that I am white, my camera is just the cherry on top. Haitians are incredibly hard to photograph because of my whiteness. Jeanmary likes to tease me about how many more photographs I would be able to get if I was black and mute. I usually make friends first. If I can’t make friends… then Jeanmary will make friends and try to convince them to put up with me. My style of shooting is very subtle, so I rarely piss people off once I feel it is okay to start. I prefer to photograph people that I have a meaningful relationship with. The trust will show in the image. I go that route first, but it isn’t always possible.
Tell us about the equipment you brought to Haiti, and how it helped you achieve your artistic vision.
In Haiti, I use a Nikon D7000 and a 24/1.4.
I took a few lenses along on the first trip but I have figured out now that (on a cropped sensor) 24mm is how I frame things in my head. I prefer to shoot at night… no matter where I am, so the brighter the lens the better. No matter where I am (excluding jobs) I carry one camera with one prime lens. Anything more than that just bugs me… and draws more attention.
How long were you in Haiti and how did you feel coming back to Los Angeles?
My trips have been for two weeks at a time.
When I come back I feel great for a few days and then I start drinking too much. It takes me a couple weeks to get back to normal. I go through pretty extreme cycles. My family and friends are very supportive and they talk me through my frustrations. Previously I was a volunteer for the Red Cross for about 6 months. I photographed many of their events and was in training to become a disaster responder here in LA. I had the opportunity to spent some time with the head of emergency operations in Haiti. I saw their largest tent city and cholera hospital. When I got back I removed myself from the volunteer list. What I observed was very enlightening. It took some time to absorb that experience and what it means.
After this last trip I went more bonkers than usual because I was beginning to toy with the idea of managing a project that would clean up the morgue at the general hospital. When Renaldo died, his body was left sprawled on the floor of the morgue hallway for almost two weeks. The staff at the morgue demanded money from Jeanmary in order to put him in the freezer (there was plenty of room). They are essentially gangsters, and they hold the dead as hostages. It really mixed me up for awhile. The morgue has become a focused project in and of itself since then.
Is there anything else I missed that you would like to mention?
I don’t consider myself a street photographer, but I do believe that street photographs are key to this project. One of the most important qualities of street photographs is that they give the viewer a finger on the pulse of a city. During the two trips I have made so far, I have never once seen a photographer walking around on the street, nor have I seen any at all once the sun goes down. They drive around in private cars, and when they do stop and get out, most have a security team with them. Try going out and taking street photographs ANYWHERE with an entourage. No one will be themselves. It’s already hard enough to get Haitians to lighten up around one white person.
A mentor of mine tried to discourage me from going back to Haiti and continuing this project. He felt that the country was over saturated with photographers, the situation was too complicated for me, and that no one back home was interested anymore. Unfortunately he was right, but that is exactly why I need to keep at this. I just don’t see any images coming out of Haiti that , in my opinion, do the country or the people justice. It isn’t all drama all the time like the media would have you believe. The living and the dead alike should be photographed calmly.
Images from “Waiting from Haiti”
If you would like to support areas such as Haiti or places anywhere else in the world, please consider making a donation to the American Red Cross.
How did you feel after reading this article and seeing Robert’s images? Feel free to leave words of encouragement and support for Robert as well as anything else you would like to say.