There’s a special place in my heart for Haiti Cherie, a place where people know more about hope and pride than most people from so-called “developed” countries such as America will ever understand. Being that I just returned from my third trip there I thought maybe you’d be interested in just how one goes about getting striking photos in an extreme environment such as this. The short of it: almost everything that holds true in my normal work is the opposite of what I do when shooting in Haiti.
In Haiti I still shoot with my Nikon D300 and Tamron 28-75 f/2.8. That’s about where the similarity ends. I don’t bring my Nikon 50mm f/1.8 or any other lenses and I don’t bring my flash. My vertical grip, which I usually swear by, makes the camera too large and cumbersome. I generally hate camera straps but I always use one in Haiti. The tripod stays home as do of course my studio lights. I need to be quick and agile. On the other hand I do bring my Macbook pro for daily downloads and extra batteries for both my camera and laptop since electricity is rare. On this trip I used the Compuday 250 for day trips but the Pelican 1510 case is absolutely essential for general travel.
My Pelican 1510 is usually just a great place to keep my gear clean, protected and organized. When I have a job that requires travel it’s nice to have the wheeled padded case instead of a backpack. However it really shows its’ value when using it in the extreme conditions it was designed for. My gear survived extreme bumps, high heat, clouds of flying dust and sudden unexpected downpours – no dust or water got inside the case at all. It even survived a roach infestation – they got all over the handles and inside the wheels, but none were able to penetrate the seal and get inside.
The settings I shoot with are just as different. On a normal basis I hate letting the camera make decisions for me. Most of the time I choose my ISO, the aperture, the speed and beyond that it’s set to RAW with minimal processing. White balance is set to a custom white balance whenever practical and the rest of the time on Auto, in which case I fine tune it in post-production anyway. Not so when I’m shooting in an environment like Haiti.
First off, there’s Active D-Lighting (the Canon equivalent is Auto Lighting Optimizer). Normally I have this turned off as it can water down the dramatic effects of my work. However in Haiti with the intense sunlight and the corresponding intense shadows I turn it to High or Normal which allows me to capture a lot of images I would miss otherwise. Second there’s ISO-auto. Again, normally I shoot at ISO 200 and only bump it up if I can’t get the shot. However with the speed I have to work with I set it to 200 but turn ISO-auto on. Remember it will use 200 when possible and only bump it up if its’ necessary to get the shot. The third one is that most of the time I shoot in Manual mode so I can choose whether to properly expose, under or over.
In Haiti I usually keep it on Speed priority. If I’m walking around I keep it around 1/250s, where when I’m on the road I tend to shoot around 1/1250s. If I need to override the aperture this can still be done with the aperture dial, so it speeds up my work without totally removing control completely.
When it comes to the actual shooting it all depends on what you’re looking for. At one moment I may be moving through a market, careful with who I shoot – it’s not like street photography in the normal sense because people aren’t used to seeing big cameras. On top of that you have to be careful because you have no way of knowing who has a strong belief in Voodoo and thinks that by taking their photo you’re stealing their soul. If that happens they’ll rally the market against you and the trouble could be very real. I’m not making this up or exaggerating, it happened to me on my first trip and was very scary. It helps to take photos of children first who are more receptive and show people the photo and that the child is fine. Additionally I memorized the Creole phrase “Eske mwen ka fe foto ou?” which translates to “Can I MAKE a photo of you” as opposed to the more common American phrase “Can I take a photo of you..”
Subtle but specific wording can make a big difference.
Other times I was photographing in hospitals, where the challenge was finding ways to photograph someone’s pain with dignity and respect. When working in the hospital I needed considerable time – I first walked around the hospital so people knew my face, the next day I walked around with my camera but did not take any photos. Next I photographed incidentals such as an incubator and doctors and technicians working there so that people saw what I was doing. Again my next step was to photograph children before finally taking pictures of some of the adults, asking permission whenever practical. In any case it is always important to walk away if your work is not welcomed no matter how great the photo could be.
However one of my favorite ways to shoot, and a way I get some of my best candids and landscapes is from the back of a pickup truck. This is a common way to travel (though not for a foreigner so if you get strange looks that’s why). Why do I choose to travel this way? Well primarily it’s because from the inside of a car I have only one angle to shoot towards – the closest open window. Anything else is a missed shot. I even miss shots that are in that field of view because it’s harder to see the shot coming. From the back of the truck I have a 360 degree view. It’s also birds-eye which helps me see the shots in advance and get ready. What’s the experience like? Well your truck is usually traveling down the worst dirt roads you can imagine at as high speeds as it can handle without falling apart, bumping up and down weaving in and out around slower trucks and motorcycles. It’s extremely hot with nothing to protect you from the beating sun – if you’re prone to sunburn make sure you drench yourself in sunblock (but you’ll probably still get a burn). Much of the time dust is flying up all around you, except for when a sudden rain comes – and when it comes the rain is fast and furious. In the meantime I’m hanging onto the roll bar with my left hand, camera in my right trying to stay on my feet and not bump the lens up against the truck. I look around constantly, camera set to 1/1250s or so and continuous shooting. I know that despite the settings I will miss shots – there will still be some blurred photos not to mention compositional errors or missing the subject completely – so where I normally criticize machine-gun shooters, this is a case where it will help you get a few of those really great shots.
In summary, this type of work is difficult, dangerous and at times frustrating. It certainly isn’t for everyone. It’s also a constant adrenaline rush and if that’s as good for you as it is for me you’ll find yourself traveling around with nothing less than a permanent grin stuck to your face. My travel companion on this trip was quick to point out that I looked so happy compared to when she saw me in the U.S. I’ll be writing up some of my stories and posting some photos over the next couple weeks on my personal blog. In the meantime you can take a look at some highlighted images from my first two trips on my site at sander-martijn.com/haiti.
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