(Photo by Thomas Hurst)
Smoke from burning tires rises over a church in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Moments later, the Churches Helping Churches team was whisked off by security teams as a riot over water shortages unfolded only blocks away.
by Thomas Hurst
I’ve had some striking experiences in my photojournalism career. Like being kidnapped in the Congo for a short period of time with a group of journalists and seriously thinking we were all dead. Or the time a female gorilla in Rwanda got upset and began flailing her arms and struck me in the groin as she rushed past. Or the time I spent an afternoon with an old zookeeper inside a den of lions at the Kabul Zoo in Afghanistan. There are more stories, some I remember vividly and think about often; others I try to put some distance on.
Once outside the doors of Haiti’s airport and into the waiting vehicles headed to Port-au-Prince, I took a deep breath and was flooded with memories of my first trip to Haiti 14 years ago.
A Big Break Amid Burning Tires
My awakening to photojournalism started in 1992 with my first trip to Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. But my adventures became a career when I first went to Haiti in 1996. It was in Haiti where I began to "see" images in a unique way. It was in Haiti that I got my first big break: a freelance gig with Time magazine.
As our vehicles weaved in and out of the traffic of people, cars, motorcycles and buses, the connection between 1996 and 2010, and the work God had been doing in my life between these visits, seemed clear.
I remember the day after I landed the assignment with Time. I had gone to bed so impressed with myself for talking a picture editor at such a prestigious magazine into hiring an unknown college kid. Hours later I woke up, a little freaked out that I had talked a picture editor at Time into hiring an unknown college kid.
Fear can be a real motivator, so I was out on the streets before sunup looking for something to impress Time. As I made my way deeper into Port-au-Prince, I reached an area of the city where people gathered to catch buses to different parts of the island. I had already been in Haiti a few weeks and knew the area well enough to know that something wasn’t right. A once bustling location was now empty. Those I could see gathered nervously in small groups pointing down a long stretch of road.
I made my way past the bus area to where I could see more clearly. In the distance a large group of men were stringing tires across the roadway. Any unsuspecting motorists who made their way towards the fast forming roadblock, were chased off with machetes. Suddenly, someone added gas and a match – and poof, the line of tires ignited and the early morning sky began to fill with billowing plumes of black smoke. I stood a couple hundred yards from the machete-waiving men and the line of burning tires, watching them attack cars and people.
A Guide Through the Streets of Fire
It was there that I began a very intense conversation with myself: Well this is it Thomas. Are you going down there or not? You can’t make any good pictures from here. You are going to have to go down there. You wanted to be a globetrotting photojournalist. You’re the one who called Time magazine.
I remember looking at the Haitians gathered around me, trying to make eye contact with them to ask, "Does anyone want to go down there with me?" I felt they were silently saying back, "You must be crazy, white man."
I managed a few steps toward the tires, each step feeling heavier then the last. The black smoke was becoming even thicker. As the breeze shifted, so did the direction and pattern of the smoke. I stopped, looking around to see if anyone was going to join me or stop me.
I walked a little farther and stopped when I heard, "Excuse me." I nearly jumped out of my skin.
I spun around and was looking directly at the sternum of a very large man. I slowly looked up. There stood the tallest, broadest, and heaviest Haitian man I had ever seen, and he had just spoken to me in almost perfect English. "Do you want to go down there?" he asked.
Dumbfounded by the sudden appearance of this man at my side, his enormous size, and his ability to speak clear English. He asked me again, "Do you want to go down there?" All I could mutter was, "Uh-huh." He reached out and took the camera bag hanging over my shoulder and said, "Come on, I’ll protect you."
He started walking towards the machete-waiving men. I stood frozen, trying to size-up everything that was happening. Where did this guy come from? Who was he? Why was he so confident? Why was he helping me? Is this a trap? Why is he carrying my camera bag? He turned back and smiled, "Come on, you’ll be fine." I turned to follow him, cautiously.
Darkness On The Edge Of Town
As we approached the tires the number of men who had been manning the burning barrier seemed to diminish a bit and no one bothered us. The body of a man bludgeoned to death with a cinderblock lay in the street and I began photographing the grisly scene. Every few frames I would peek up from my camera and look for my new friend who was never more than a few feet away. Then I saw a crowd rushing down a side street and with the big man leading the way I followed. There, in the circle, was a man who only moments ago had been hacked to death. Then, another commotion, and anther man lay dead. Someone draped a tire over the body, poured gasoline on him – whoosh, the body ignited.
As I photographed this, a man watching among the crowd crumpled a few feet away from a machete blow and his attacker quickly finished him off. Whatever was happening seemed to be random and personal.
I don’t know how long I was photographing bodies dropping, tires burning and people running from one attack to another, but with the big guy leading me at every turn, it was as if I where invisible. No one spoke to me, threatened me or asked me for anything.
At some point in the day another photographer showed up and we introduced ourselves. She worked for a major East Coast newspaper and had spent a considerable amount of time documenting Haiti. She had a local guy translating and assisting for her, and we decided to partner up. This allowed me to let my guy go.
I turned to the large Haitian who had given me protection all morning and thanked him dearly for his help. "Let me pay you something for your time." "No, that’s okay," he said. I insisted, but he wouldn’t take my money. "Well what’s your name?" I asked him. "I should at least know your name after all of this."
"My name is Moses," he said softly, sharing it in such a way as if only to appease my sudden curiosity. "Moses?" I repeated. I turned around to tell the photographer I had just met that the guy who had led me around all morning was named Moses and in the time it took me to tell her and turn back around, he was gone. A Haitian man, standing 6’4’’ or taller had slipped into the crowd and vanished as quickly as he had appeared. I was left muttering his name, Moses.
The images I made that day in 1996 launched my career. Time magazine went on to use several images from that situation, including a large three-quarter page spread from the first body I shot.
Haiti, Full Circle
Now I was in Haiti again, 14 years later as a Christian photographing black smoke over churches rather than black smoke over murdered men. It is incredible for me to think about all the work that God has done in my life despite being so unworthy.
As our vehicles weaved in and out of traffic on an all to familiar road, it was easy to reflect back on this place where my photojournalism career was launched, which ultimately led me to Seattle, where I became saved at Mars Hill Church, which ultimately led to the end of my photography career, where God called me into ministry at Mars Hill, which led to me being asked to return to Haiti to shoot pictures for Churches Helping Churches, which is how I drove down the same street that years before I had met a man named Moses.
Thomas Hurst is a retired veteran photojournalist, now a deacon with Mars Hill Bellevue. He accompanied Mars Hill’s Pastor Mark and Pastor James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, Illinois on their trip on behalf of Churches Helping Churches to Port-au-Prince one week after the devastating January 12 earthquake. Don’t miss his other posts on this blog.