By Candice Russell
With presidential elections in the United States still a long way off, it doesn’t seem to matter to television pundits already speculating about who will run for the highest office in the land and who is likely to win. All of this makes me mindful of the dismal turnout nationally for this important time in our political lives (yes, we’re all affected in ways big and small by who is in office). It all seems the sadder when I picked up a copy from my home library of Alex Web’s “Under a Grudging Sun, Photographs from Haiti Libere 1986-1988.”
In often heartbreaking color images, he documents the struggle of Haitians to live and to vote, a privilege for which some of have had to lay down their lives .Funerals and wounded bodies are part of the mix of photos in this important but difficult book. This fight for political freedom may seem foreign to us, but it is a reminder that democracy in other places isn’t a given, even when it is established as it was in Haiti but the free election of Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first freely elected leader. He was ousted by a coup then returned to the presidency on October 15, 1994 with the help of American armed forces on the ground (I know this because I was there in one of the most amazing experiences of my life).
There is so much beauty in Haiti and Webb’s camera captures that, too. Beautiful children with pleading faces, donkeys bearing items for market, marchands selling onions, gossipers standing next to an oh-so-blue sea, it’s all here. There are lovely churches and wrought iron balconies and brightly colored peacock-strutting buildings — the background for so much human drama. The worshippers of Vodou in the waterfall during the Saut d’Eau pilgrimage want to live their lives in peace as much as the people killed by anti-election gunmen and army recruits or those living on the brink of disaster in the Cite Soleil slum. These images collectively show desperation, mourning, freneticism, and disquietude. I cannot count how many men have assumed the presidency since Webb’s book was published. But the so-called crown of ascendancy that sits atop the leader’s head doesn’t sit there easily or without fear of political opposition to the point of violence. That uncertainty plagues Haiti. And now it is fear of another unknown — a repeat of the 2010 earthquake.
In an opening essay, Webb confessed he started this photo project, then dropped it for awhile — “my vision quailed in the face of history.” Who can blame him? Even a Haiti follower and writer as adept as Amy Wilentz has written that Haiti is a hard place to wrap one’s mind around. The lensman finishes his long, reflective essay by falling back on his photojournalist skills: “But I am certainly the wrong person to predict the future of sad and beguiling Haiti. I should perhaps just walk, and watch, and wait…”
The back cover says all there is to say about the grief that he captures. Men in blue shirts are carrying small black child-size coffins up the stairs to a pink church.