Wednesday morning was a world away from Tuesday night. We woke early, breakfast was served at 7:30. Yes, there was a dining hall in our wall-protected compound, and a fully staffed kitchen. We ate eggs, tomatoes, toast, sausage and fresh squeezed orange juice. Was this real?
The other missionaries staying at the Villa were from various denominations and churches, but the most significant presence was the Wesleyan Church. Most had been there long before the earthquake.
Of the 40 or so people staying at the Villa, we organized ourselves into our respective groups in order to plan our relief strategy for the day.
Naturally the tug in my stomach from the hospital had not diminished, if anything my need to go back was morphing into something a little wild.
Surpris told us that our job for the day was to go by truck to the Doctors Without Borders office in downtown Port Au Prince, pick up some medical supplies, and drive them back to Diquini Hospital.
After breakfast, we rallied, doused ourselves with one last round of bug spray, and walked over to the hospital.
It was calmer than the night before, it was easier to make out individuals and their injuries in the hot, bright daylight. It was also easier to take a visual tally of the casualties.
Dead bodies were placed on the grass on either side and on the median of the hospital driveway, shreds of sheets placed over their faces and torsos, but you could always see most of the lifeless limbs stretching out from underneath the rags. Dignity in death, in the sense that Americans interpret it, did not exist in this place. Here, the dignity was solely spiritual.
We piled into a black pickup, some of us in the cab, most of us in the bed. On the jerky ride to the Doctors Without Borders office my mother asked “Why didn’t you take any pictures at the hospital?”
I opened my mouth to respond with something overly defensive, but no words came out. The truth was I didn’t really know why, I just felt guilty. I was still reeling from the night before. In a move to alleviate the remorse for not having taken pictures of the dead, I started to photograph more of the damage we saw on the drive.
I also began to mentally coach myself, “Alright Suzanne, this is why you’re here, you’re a story teller, get it together.” I started visualizing myself taking pictures of gruesome things, not unlike an athlete that visualizes scoring the winning goal before the game starts. I so wanted to prove myself to be a journalist.
After arriving at the Doctors Without Borders office downtown, we waited while our escort went in to check things out. The streets were bustling yet bleak at the same time. Many injured had nowhere to go, and so sat on the street side, letting their newly severed limbs bake in the impossibly hot sun. I knew then the smell of freshly opened flesh would soon turn into something much more putrid.
We found out that a gas station had exploded the night before near the office, so burn victims were prevalent inside the office’s makeshift mash unit. One thing to hear it, another to see it, smell it, feel it.
We were driven around back, from where we would walk onto the premise, and carry out boxes of supplies to load in the truck.
After passing a large beige tent with Medicines senz Frontiers written on the side, the first thing I saw was the worst. A dead women splayed over the concrete with a leg that had been ripped off, blood and fat spilling out everywhere beneath her. She had a cardboard slat lain over her, it was the only privacy anyone could afford her. While involuntarily stopping my breath, I then passed the entrance to the tent that housed the burn victims. Young people almost or completely naked with third-degree burns from toe to crown were lying in the dirt, howling in pain. Their smell was distinct from the other injuries we had encountered thus far. So many smells all threatening to nauseate. Oddly enough my stomach was my only steady feature.
I focused on the task, looking only at the doctors who were passing out medical supplies. I grabbed enough boxes to partially block my vision, a defense mechanism I guess. I did see one of my companions take out her camera just in time to have the French doctors yell at her “No pictures! No pictures!” It was the strongest protest I had heard yet. On one level I was glad it wasn’t me getting yelled at, but on the other hand shouldn’t it have been me getting yelled at?
We hurriedly packed up the supplies and hopped on top of them in the back of the truck for the return drive. My mother and I started talking about my dilemma. Of course a journalist is always a journalist, much like a doctor is always a doctor, even if their momentary presence isn’t of a professional nature. But the truth was I wasn’t here for a publication. I wasn’t getting paid to bring the story home. I didn’t have the huge Nikon camera around my neck, or the conspicuous press badge that would tell onlookers that I was just doing my job. I had my little Canon point and shoot, enough to make me look like a tourist merely interested in capturing a people at their weakest and most gruesome moments. I was horribly self-conscious when taking pictures. Self-conscious; why was I being so “self” centered? My ego was irrelevant right? If I came under threats and anger because I was trying to tell a story that could lead to assistance then so be it. When I realized this, I knew my focus was beginning to return.
We arrived at the hospital, delivered the supplies and set to work. A woman had just passed away moments before our arrival and was lying on the front porch of the hospital, here eyes affixed in death on the sky above her. There was a sheet tangled in her legs. I took a breath in, slid the sheet over her face, and took out my camera. I didn’t photograph her. Covering her seemed respectful, but I also took it in as a personal ritual, going from dismayed volunteer to green storyteller. I took pictures of the bodies I’d seen earlier. I photographed the view from the steps of the hospital, trying to capture the crudeness of the care these people were receiving for lack of supplies. It was hard with my digital camera, and I was still working out my nerves of being perceived as insensitive. But no one approached me or grimaced at me. I simply became a part of the environment, barely even noticed. As I worked out my anxiety with each photo, my respect for the photographers that heed no limits in their story-capturing grew exponentially.