“A Photo-Journalist in Haiti”

By Candice Russell

This story by me originally appeared in the “On Exhibit” page of City Link weekly newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on March 24, 2004. It is about Maggie Steber, a former Miami Herald staff photographer, capturing the ongoing turmoil in Haiti.


With the recent ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as Haiti’s first democratically elected president and the ensuing violence on the island, a photo exhibition at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in Miami is particularly well-timed. “Maggie Steber: Haitian Photographs,” on view through June 6, is a grimly compelling window on a place misunderstood by the outside world. The widespread belief in Vodou and the unfathomable absence of political and economic stability on the western third of the land mass known as Hispaniola make the country a unique case in the Caribbean.

Steber is no stranger to Haiti. As a photo-journalist, she fearlessly covered the Haitian presidential election in 1990 and the tumultuous events surrounding it. Her 1991 book, “Dancing on Fire,” is a visual document of her experiences, and the photos in the exhibit represent the five years before and after the election. “Haiti is like an ache in the bones,” she notes on a wall panel. “It breaks your heart daily with its melange of beauty and suffering, its narcotic of politic dueling and the spirit world’s mysterious magic.”

Some of the untitled color images represent hope, if only in the pride of women and children captured in their Sunday best. A 1990 photo of apostolics praying on a mountain outside La Plaisance shows evidence of faith in a better day. More demonstrative in trying to contact their pantheon of gods and goddesses are Vodou celebrants dancing and drumming in Steber’s picture of a ceremony at the peristyle (enclosure) of Vodouist and fabric artist Sylva Joseph in 1989. The blurriness of the images suggests the frenzied motion of the ecstatic dancers reaching toward a world they cannot touch.

After following a man into a voting place in the Carrefour Feuile diestict of the capital in 1990, Steber captured him pondering a ballot by candlelight in the historic election that made Aristide president. The ballot is a sea of faces, numbers and images (rather than words) to help the mostly illiterate population mark the right choice.

Other images depict hopelessness. People from the Port-au-Prince shantytowns of La Saline and cite Soleil are shown fighting over trash at an American military camp in 1994. Even the discovery of discarded batteries is worth the struggle, a wall text suggests. Another photo depicts a barefoot young man, shot dead and propped up outside a home as a warning to those who wanted to vote in November, 1987. These chilling images make viewers mindful of the continuing problems in Haiti that are bigger than Haitians alone can solve.

Daily life persists, as in the outdoor killing field in the La Saline slum, where a child is indifferent to the slaughtered goat carcasses hanging nearby. The chaos of market day in the small town of Jean-Rabel in 1988 is shown in the small hand mirrors, Colgate toothpaste, Irish Spring soap and grooming devices jumbled together. The mirrors reflect the shoppers, including the stoic face of a little girl; a toddler boy sits outside a home with a painted blue wall where someone has added an image of a long-haired Jesus in a heart shape.

Then, there is absolute heart-pounding grief, expressed in the tearful face of a boy held by mourning relatives at a funeral. Death is the handmaiden of life in Haiti, where politics hurries the process along for too many people. These remarkable photos by Steber suggest the intensity of the country, only 713 miles from Miami, but in significant ways, a world apart.