The Caribbean nation of Haiti, rocked by the January 12 earthquake that shook its already shaky infrastructure, has been rendered a country of angels and demons, according to one Brooklyn-based freelance photographer.
Nicholas Weissman, a freelance photojournalist, recently spent a week shooting the chaotic situation in Haiti.
After hitching a ride with the Bedford Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps, a group of largely Haitian-American EMTs and paramedics, and securing an assignment from Time Magazine, Weissman began taking images of when he arrived in devastated Port-au-Prince on Saturday, January 16. The impression they left on him was palpable.
“Everything was crumbled and buildings were spray painted with things like ‘Many dead people in here – please help.’ How could we help if the people were already dead?” said Weismann.
“You’re used to seeing rubble, but when it’s 110 degrees out and you can smell human bodies decaying, every block is a constant reminder that you’re surrounded by death,” he said.
“When we got there [to the hospital], there was nobody at all. Even the people who ran it were gone,” he said. “There was no food, no medicine, nothing.”
When Weissman, the doctors and EMTs arrived at the hospital, word quickly spread that there was help available.
“As soon as anyone got word that there was help, body after body came in, with broken legs, broken arms, lacerations, everything,” he said.
Weissman returned to Brooklyn on Saturday, January 23 with countless stories of acts of heroism among the rubble, with volunteers working tirelessly to prevent as many deaths as possible, and lessen a death toll which seems to climb daily.
“One woman, specifically, was a Haitian physician named Monique. At first, there were no lights in the hospital, and everyone was asked, for security reasons, to go home at night and leave the patients alone, but she stayed with two others. At one point, she claims to have had one hand working on a man who was dying right next to her, while delivering a baby with the other,” he said, adding how the volunteers inspired him.
However, despite tales of heroism and charity, Weissman came home with another lesson from his experiences, and one which tells a darker tale of the depths of human desperation.
“If you remember [Hurricane] Katrina, there were people running into liquor stores and stuff, taking food and everything, but it was really just people trying to survive,” said Weisman.
Weissman went to Haiti intending to avoid covering the looting, which he believed at the time was sensationalist and was not sensitive to the behavior of a human faced with starvation.
“I didn’t want to cover the looting, as I felt that it was badly reported and wasn’t fair, and I didn’t want what happened with Katrina to happen again,” said Weissman.
“However, by the time I got down there and ran into the looting, I realized that it was different. It wasn’t survival, it was much dirtier than that,” he said, adding that he feared for his safety, especially after a narrowly avoided confrontation with looters nearly cost him his life. “It was like a game, who could catch the cash box? Who could stone the guy who stole it? It was chaos. It wasn’t good people looking to survive.”
Ultimately, Weissman left Haiti one week earlier than he had planned, citing the need for “security and a good night’s rest.”