Shooting Haiti: A photographer's story

Images of the Haiti earthquake shocked the world – and among the most powerful were those by Carlos Barria of Reuters. Guy Adams hears his story
Click to follow

Early on the morning of Wednesday, 13 January, Carlos Barria left his home in Miami and flew to Port-au-Prince aboard a chartered private jet. Roughly 12 hours earlier, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale had been recorded 10 miles west of the city. Initial reports hinted at apocalyptic damage and loss of life. But since the Haitian capital's communication links to the outside world had been all but destroyed, Barria, a senior staff photographer with the Reuters news agency, had no idea what he might find.

After landing, he rushed through the airport and flashed a $100 bill at a motorcycle, telling the driver to take him straight to the centre of town. A few hundred yards down the road, they passed a twisted corpse, lying in the gutter. Barria leapt off the bike, snapped dozens of shots on his Canon 5D MKII, and continued on his way. Little did he know that within half an hour, dead people would appear so commonplace as to be almost unworthy of his attention.

"We just started seeing bodies and bodies, absolutely everywhere," he recalls. "By the time I had got to the centre of town, we must have passed at least 500. Every place you looked, there was death. Injured people were all over the place, screaming and pleading with you to help. I was shooting photos constantly, jumping on and off the bike. Then I reached the Presidential Palace, which had crumbled. It became a key photo, just so emblematic."

In the street next to the ruined building, Barria sat down with his satellite phone, and wired 15 of his best photos to the Reuters pictures desk. It was the first set of professional photos to come out of Haiti after the disaster, and made front pages around the globe, alerting the world to the sheer scale of the human catastrophe that was rapidly unfolding on the streets of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Over the ensuing 10 days, Barria worked around the clock to bring the story of Haiti's anguish to a news-hungry world. For the first 48 hours after their arrival, he and his team of three other Reuters snappers were virtually the only photojournalists in town, since the congested airport had swiftly closed to almost all incoming charter flights, leaving hundreds of their rivals stranded on runways across the Caribbean.

The photos you see on these pages, shot as Barria whizzed around Port-au-Prince on the back of a motorcycle, tell the story of what he saw. Some are appalling; others deeply moving. A few are strangely beautiful. And all of them offer a window into the awful reality, and sheer epic scale, of one of the worst humanitarian disasters to occur in living memory. "In the first few hours, my job was all about showing the scene, taking pictures of the people and trying to give a sense of the destruction. After that, it became about trying to understand the consequences: people leaving the city, crowds sleeping rough, people looting, and the general chaos. Within a couple of days, we were looking at the rescue teams, and trying to show people the food distribution, or rather lack of it."

Many of Barria's photographs, particularly of the sporadic looting that broke out in Port-au-Prince's downtown area within a couple of days of the quake, were taken within a few feet of violent confrontations. From a distance, they seem striking for their closeness to volatile and potentially-dangerous situations. But in common with almost all journalists who have visited the city in recent days, Barria says he never felt threatened.

"My editor saw the pictures and told me to watch out, because it looked so dangerous. But to be honest, there was just so much chaos that people were not really aware of my presence. They were more concerned with fighting for food or drink, or a couple of T-shirts they'd robbed from a store. I always had the motorbike sitting within half a block of where I was, with the driver on it and the engine running, so I could have made a quick escape. But I never had to."

Barria has two "favourite" shots from the thousands he took. One is a dramatic picture of a looter threatening another looter with a knife, which appeared on several front pages last Monday. The other is a beautifully composed shot of a couple walking down a street past the rubble of several ruined buildings.

"I didn't pay much attention to it at the time, perhaps because its so simple. But the light is beautiful, there's an amazing amount of smoke, and although the surroundings look awful, there's something about the way they are holding hands that just makes the photo. It looks kind of sweet."

After spending a few days in the Dominican Republic, Barria returns to Haiti this week, and is anxious to make sure that the story of Haiti's struggle to rebuild itself isn't allowed to disappear from the public consciousness. An experienced and award-winning photographer who has worked in war zones, he says he has never found a story so tough or so moving.

"It has been very, very hard emotionally. There's been a couple of times when I've just had to put my camera down, walk away from a scene, and sit in a corner and cry. I don't have a problem with seeing bodies. To me, they've just become meat. But children I find very difficult.

"When I've seen kids in tears because they've just lost their parents, or had a leg amputated, I find it so, so powerful. You can feel overwhelmed. And if my pictures can capture just a small sense of that emotion, and helplessness, then I know I've done my job."