While walking around the National Palace on the one-year anniversary of the January 12th earthquake, I wanted to take some photos of random crowds gathered around. My Haitian-American friend advised me against it. Will people get mad, I asked, knowing that in many countries locals are actually sick and tired of foreigners coming in to snap photos and then run off to publish a Pulitzer Prize winning photo or the next cover of National Geographic (see: Afghan girl).
“No,” he replied. “If you take photos, they’ll likely just act up in front the camera, exaggerating for attention.” I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time, but I had a vague idea. Sure, everyone wants to have a camera on them, and we all want our 15 minutes of fame, so why not dramatize the moment if possible?
His words didn’t fully clique until I found myself somewhat stalking the unexpected arrival of former Haitian dictator Jean Claude Duvalier aka “Baby Doc.” I ended up finding myself outside the Karibe Hotel with throngs of onlookers, mostly journalists, to witness the occasion. And indeed it was a spectacle. You can see the crowd going wild in the video clip below:
You can actually hear one woman in the background screaming “I love you!” I sincerely doubt it. The woman who shouted the remark looked no older than mid-20s, so couldn’t possibly no anything more of Duvalier than stories her parents told her (and I’m fairly certain they didn’t paint him as a handsome Haitian knight).
Then I saw two other scenes that finally drove my friend’s point home to me. First was a group of older Haitians, one holding a small Duvalier poster and shouting his support of Duvalier into a camera… several cameras, as that he was completely surrounded by media of all types. The longer he spoke and the more people that crowded around him, the more boisterous he became and, more interestingly, the more people who seemed to join his “cause.” Other Haitians came up to hold the poster and make their own remarks about Duvalier. At one point I could see an old man slyly insert himself into the mix in order to be in front the camera. Here’s the video:
The other example is a little more lighthearted. I stumbled across a young man wearing a Haitian flag like a cape and a bright green beanie cap giving an interview about his undying support for Duvalier. At one point, he tells the journalist that if she wants he can go and meet with Duvalier right now. Even he couldn’t fully contain the laughter and a smile broke out on his face, betraying his sense-of-urgency facade.
I’m pretty sure the man with the Haitian flag-cape (Captain Duvalier?) doesn’t walk around town like that normally. But if you hear that there are dozens of cameras around the Hotel Karibe waiting for a glimpse of Duvalier, then it might be a good opportunity to do something to make yourself stand out.
Haitians are no strangers to journalists and having articles written about them, but that doesn’t mean they’re used to having their stories told. Everyone wants an opportunity to feel like their one cause, their singular story is the most important. Being dramatic in front of a camera crew is one way to get that story out there.
When I left the Hotel Karibe last night, I didn’t discern from the crowd an overwhelming sense of relief that Duvalier had returned. Instead, those present seemed more focused on the fact that the hotel, surrounded by dozens of journalists, was a prime location to get one’s story out, any story. This is not to say that there weren’t Duvalier supporters in the crowd outside the hotel, at the airport, or along the road as he was driven from one place to the next. Nonetheless, I get the feeling that a good portion of this support may be coming more from the fact that Haitians feel let down by the stalled presidential elections and are willing to try something, anything, different, than from an overwhelming outpouring of emotion for their returned Baby Doc. The real test is what will these same Haitians do when the cameras are off and Duvalier is still in the country?