When Quebec photographer Benoit Aquin returned to Haiti for the first time in 20 years, it was only days after the 2010 earthquake. The stench of death was so thick in the air that people stuck cigarettes up their nostrils or smeared toothpaste under their noses. Aquin and other aid workers slept on the floor of a restaurant in what had been downtown Port-au-Prince. Around them was nothing but ruin and desertion, peopled with the occasional clan of looters. That trip was manageable, he says in retrospect—every day he just did what he had to do, and in the evening he took photographs. Only when he returned to Montreal did the emotional effects of the experience catch up with him.
“Haiti: Chaos and Daily Life,” a spring exhibition at the McCord Museum in Montreal, was filled with intimate recordings of Aquin’s relationship with a country he has known and loved since childhood. At age four, Aquin lived there for more than a year, and he returned often in his 20s. After the 2010 trip, he felt compelled to go back, and then back again. He wanted to record not only the photojournalistic scenes that appeared in the pages of the mainstream media, but also the rest of the cycle of life: Haiti’s rebirth, its reality. The resulting 39 large-scale photographs shot between 2010 and 2012 that hung in the McCord’s main exhibition space paint a complex portrait, intermingling poignant scenes of sadness with moments of jubilation, entrancement and gruelling reconstruction.
Because Aquin shot mostly at dusk during the 2010 trip, the light conferred on those photos has a haunting blue tint. As if he himself were burgeoning from a mourning period, the images from Aquin’s later trips are increasingly colourful—even celebratory. Always guided by humanitarian causes, Aquin has previously applied his particular brand of photographic poetry to tragic subjects, including melting ice floes and the Chinese dust bowl. As with this project, he sought to show us—through beautiful, tense imagery—what is happening in the world, and our place in relation to it. Aquin’s Haiti images tell us that life continues despite media ignorance and mismanaged charity funds, and that it is messy, ecstatic, beautiful and hard. Alongside galvanizing quotes by a friend, the Haitian Québécois writer Dany Laferrière, Aquin’s sensitive photographs honour a unique place and culture without mythologizing it or pitying its people.
This is an article from the Summer 2010 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents.