There’s been a development in the Fabienne Cherisma story. If the name doesn’t mean anything, let me quickly fill you in.
Fabienne was a 15 year old girl from Port-Au-Prince in Haiti who, in the aftermath of the earthquake, on January 19th, 2010, was shot in the head by either police or security forces. The country was devastated, a quarter of million people were feared dead and the looting was underway. It’s believed that police were firing warning shots to disperse the looters when a bullet struck Fabienne – a tragedy upon a tragedy upon a tragedy.
But Fabienne’s end is where the story starts. Because once she’d been shot, she was shot again and again – but by cameras this time. Her corpse became one of the defining images of the earthquake. In fact, the image of her lying dead on the slope with oblivious looters in the background has struck such a chord that of the 15 international photographers who took her picture, five have won awards. Pictures like these:
But of all the pictures of Fabienne Cherisma, one has really caused a stir – this image of photojournalists just going about their business:
Prison Photography has covered the controversy with great sensitivity and intelligence over the last year or so. Interviews with photographers, accounts of the actual events – if you’re after the facts, that’s the place to go. Because it’s clearly not straightforward – whatever revulsion we feel at seeing these photographers clustered there like vultures, these people have done more than any of us in drawing attention to Haiti’s plight, and they’ve risked their own lives in the process. So they’re actually heroes. Is this what heroism looks like?
Anyway, here’s the latest. On May 14, it was reported that Lucas Oleniuk won a National Newspaper Award in Canada, becoming the fifth photographer of Fabienne’s corpse to be honored. And a few hours later, the Jury received an impassioned email from one of the photojournalists who was apparently crouched next to Lucas on that day in Haiti. That email has come into my possession and I’m going to share it with you today in full.
I ought to warn you – it’s emotional and it pulls no punches. It really takes you inside what it feels like to be one of those frontline photographers whose work we see, but about whom we know so little.
When I started out as a photographer, people would tell me that this business would make me hard, and as time went on, I wouldn’t be affected so much by the things I saw. But that’s not true. I’ve been shooting wars and disasters for ten years now and yet when I look at Lucas’s picture of Fabienne Cherisma, I get overcome with emotion. Anger, frustration, helplessness. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve cried on occasion. The truth is that it never gets easier to witness things like this. And this photo in particular really got to me. I was raised a Catholic, but I have to wonder – if there is a God, how could He allows this kind of injustice?
The facts, as you know, are clear. I was sitting right next to Lucas that day, and I took the same picture as he did. But no one gave me an award. I didn’t even get an honorable mention.
I know what you’re thinking – maybe it was out of focus, it wasn’t composed properly or whatever. Bullshit! When I say “same picture”, I mean “exactly fucking identical.” Same corpse, same looters, same everything. If one award had been given, then all right, I could have stomached that. Maybe two at a push. But five? It’s like some kind of sick joke. If there was anything fair and just in this world then I’d have something on my mantelpiece too. But no – what this picture tells me is that life isn’t fair, it’s just a fucked-up lottery where some people get all the breaks in life and other people get tossed to the side, and it’s all totally random.
Don’t get me wrong, the photo deserves recognition. It’s a great picture. It’s powerful and evocative and it transports me right back to that terrible day in Haiti. I remember the looters all around and the panic in the air. I remember the stench of death and dust in my nostrils, and that uneasy fear you feel when all around you is chaos and confusion. But even then I had a rock I could cling to, a truth that could sustain me through all this – I knew that this picture would win me awards. Beyond Fabienne’s poignant corpse I could see a trophy on my mantelpiece, maybe a new agent, maybe a meeting with Magnum. Over the howl of dogs and the wail of dying babies, I could hear the applause as I made my way to the podium.
Photojournalists are used to seeing terrible things. We’re no strangers to man’s inhumanity to man. We have nightmares, sure. But when we wake up in the morning, we grab our cameras and we go to work. That isn’t just what we do – it’s who we are.
But there isn’t one of us out there on the front lines that hasn’t seen something so horrifying that it changes us, maybe forever. An image that makes the world look different forever more. I know that I’ll never forget that ordinary Sunday morning when I checked my email, and there it was – a press release in my inbox with the subject line “Lucas Oleniuk becomes the fifth photographer to…” I couldn’t read on. I had to look away. I could feel my world falling apart even then.
I never thought I would say this, but I don’t know if I’ll be picking up my camera again. I’m not the same person I was before Haiti.
Here are some links to the excellent work mentioned in this post: