Haiti’s disaster: Regarding the pain of others

Tell the truth. Bear witness. Explain. Connect.

For visual journalists, these abstract ideas never seem more real than when we’re confronted with a disaster on the scale of the earthquake in Haiti and its aftermath.

As designers, one of the tools we use is scale, yet this calamity is almost unimaginably big. How do we do our job? What are our responsibilities to our readers? To the people whose lives we portray?

Haiti has additional resonance for many of us because our friends, neighbors, and colleagues were born or have family there. For that reason, I’ve focused on work from France, the Caribbean, and on the parts of the US with the largest communities of immigrants: south Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Let’s take a look.

Le Monde and Libération chose photos that show both devastation and human impact. There’s frequently a trade off between the two: images that show wide-spread destruction lose human scale, while those that focus on an individual lack wider context. These entries are both very strong, but the eye contact and the use of simple typography to frame the image makes Libé’s cover more urgent and affecting. The headlines translate to “In Haiti, death, desolation and ruin” (le Monde) and “Cursed land” (Libération).

It’s worth noting that Libération’s crop eliminates a badly wounded, possibly dead, man to the viewers’ left. By contrast, the woman being carried in the Le Monde photo is clearly dead. Showing the dead is very controversial in most publications, especially in the U.S. As the late Susan Sontag pointed out in her excellent collection of essays whose title I used for the headline on this column, there’s an especially strong taboo against showing the faces of the dead. She notes “The more remote or exotic the place, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and the dying.” It’s a provocative thought, one that is often expressed in our reluctance to show the faces of dead soldiers. Is she right?

Both French papers also reached out to the community. Libération featured quotes from Haiti in their special section online, while Le Monde went one better with an online form for comment and reaction (subscribers only, unfortunately).

In neighboring Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Dia’s front features a direct gaze that reaches out to readers. The hed, which translates as “Desolation,” echoes the frightened gaze of the photo subject. Cropping so tightly eliminates a sense of wider devastation, though.

New York-area tabloids New York Post and Newsday offered powerful — and powerfully different –ways to tell the story. The Post is all about horror, with the queasy juxtaposition of the dead below and the living, cropped below their knees, above. Newsday’s cover is an appeal for help, both in the gesture within the photo and in the subhead “The Grief and Worry on [Long Island].”

It’s fascinating to compare the Staten Island Advance to the Newark Star-Ledger. The two photos seem to have been taken moments apart, yet evoke completely different feelings. The downcast eyes and the crop of the helping hand underline the boy’s isolation in the S-l’s image. The photo chosen by the Advance is less aesthetically pleasing, perhaps, but carries more information. The difference is accentuated by the use of secondary images to tell different aspects of the story in the Advance.

Both The Boston Globe and USA Today led with wide shots of the destruction that also focused a single person. The woman’s gesture is more powerful in the Globe, but USAT’s framing works well to pull the reader in. The young woman almost echoes a reader’s unspoken question: “Can you believe this?” USA Today’s site pulls together a huge number of resources, so many in fact, that the presentation overwhelms. A smart feature on the Globe’s boston.com allows users to add comments and personal stories and sorts them by neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. The New York Times online has built a sharp page that collects photos and audio, and comments in a map-based interface.

I like how the Miami Herald paired a photo from Haiti with one from Florida. Their cover lines also emphasize the local angle on the story. That carries over to their web site which includes links for how to give in Creole and a fantastic page titled “Haiti Connect” featuring Twitter feeds, comments, and forums for uploading photos and information on missing family members. Really impressive. The Tampa Tribune’s photo choices are weaker (if you’re going to use photos of the presidential palace, show it before and after the quake) but I like the use of an infographic.

Finally, the Orlando Sentinel used the same photo as the Globe, but the headline gives the woman’s pose a whole new meaning. The typography is beautifully thought-out here and helps wrap together an impressive package of news, personal testimony, and practical information on how to give aid. Compare, too, how the headline pairing in the South Florida Sun Sentinel changes the meaning of the image, which was also used by USA Today.

How well can a print or web design, a headline, or a photograph tell a story as big and complex as the one unfolding in Haiti? Do images of suffering merely overwhelm us or can they do more? Sontag writes of images of war, “Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function.”

Dan Zedek is the Assistant Managing Editor for Design at The Boston Globe and was site chair for SND Boston in 2007.