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.

6 comments

Enlightening article, Dan. One doesn’t usually get to see how so many papers reported the same story, and your discussion makes clear the intent of each newspaper.

Added to my appreciation of the immense task that you and the other designers, and photographers, are doing – making the unimaginable real to those of us at a distance. Karen

This reminds me of the discussion that came up when the Tsunami hit South Asia in 2004. My husband and I landed in Chennai at 3 or 4 a.m. and the tsunami hit at 6 (if I remember correctly). In the days that followed we say a lot of images of dead bodies on the front pages of The Hindu. I remember telling my husband that if this had happened in the U.S we would not have seen so many bodies on the front pages of U.S. papers.

When I talked to a friend who is a TV producer for a government station, her reasoning was that the images were probably a way to let the middle-class of Chennai realize the sufferings of the lower class — a lot of the people who died were fishermen and the poor who lived close to the ocean.

I don’t have an answer for the “why” but I know the images were haunting — bodies of both children and adults. I don’t know how the other papers in India played the news. I have the front pages somewhere at home and if I find them, Dan, I’ll to send them to you.

This Thursday, my husband (who is an ethnomusicologist) is producing a benefit for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti, here in Westchester County. This morning we went to a church in White Plains to make an announcement etc., and I was struck by the very put-together, joyous image of all the people there. It seems that the choice of this particular community is to gather every color of the rainbow, lots of music and hope in the face of disaster. I think it’s important for photographers to present the strength and resilience of the Haitian people who have been making a plea for their independence and liberation since 1804. Sometimes the images of total devastation and hopelessness might give license to more powerful nations to take over. That said, all of the images are interesting- but these are just some thoughts that your very interesting and insightful article inspired.

What is happening in Haiti reminds many natural disasters that happened in my country (Indonesia). Instructions for emergency response for countries that are in natural disaster-prone zones like Haiti and Indonesia is required. So as to minimize casualties.

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