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Portraits From an Unseen Haiti : Marie-Yolande Saint-Fleur Risked Death to Photograph Life in Her Homeland, Driven By Passion for Her Work and a Sense of History

October 03, 1994|TY TAGAMI | Times Staff Writer

Long before the glare of international media lights found Haiti, photojournalist Marie-Yolande Saint-Fleur was gathering its quotidian realities through her lens.

She put her life at risk to capture moments of the carnage playing out in city streets. But Saint-Fleur's greater contribution to history may be her pictures of everyday life, eight years' worth, that fill the gaps left by outsiders drawn more by flash than substance.

Tontons Macoutes and attaches tailed her, threatened her and shot at her, but she kept her commitment to a simple purpose: Photograph everything. Relying on her knack for theatrics, she stayed at least one pace ahead of her persecutors while recording images of everything from voodoo rituals to presidential inaugurations and even, she says, "things as simple as a rock."

For following her passion, for risking torture or death, Saint-Fleur will receive the fifth annual International Women's Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award on Tuesday in New York. The other recipients are Christiane Amanpour, a foreign correspondent for the Cable News Network, and Razia Bhatti, an editor for Pakistan's Newsline magazine.

"(Saint-Fleur) had nothing going for her at the time that she was putting herself on the line, doing what she felt she had to do," says Kathy Bushkin, foundation co-chair and editorial manager for U.S. News & World Report.

While many journalists working in Haiti enjoy a measure of protection through ties to a large news organization or a foreign government, Saint-Fleur had none.

In fact, the committee had considered giving the award to another Haitian journalist, Edwige Balutansky. But, in a stirring letter, she asked that the organization pass her up in favor of Saint-Fleur.

"She has been through very difficult times, and I felt she deserved it more than I did," says the former Reuters correspondent, explaining that her light skin and influential friends made her less vulnerable to military hounding.

Reached in Miami, Saint-Fleur, 31, speaks via a telephone conference call that includes a translator. A lifetime of speaking Creole gives her syllables a twang often found in the villages of southern France.

Strapped for cash, Saint-Fleur has been staying with friends since arriving as a refugee six months ago. She is accustomed to the itinerant lifestyle.

Within months of beginning her first photography course in 1986, she embarked on a career that would force her into hiding. "I, like so many other journalists, could not sleep at home," she wrote in her unsuccessful 1993 application to the United States for political asylum.

Her brother Joseph had enrolled her in a Port-au-Prince photography school, believing the art form would match his sister's temperament. She always had the ability to reach people, touch them through theater, music, art, poetry and dance, he explains in a telephone interview from France. "She has the sense of human contact."

Besides, in Haiti, one takes opportunity as it comes, he says, and he knew the school director.

Saint-Fleur quickly abandoned her other interests. Within a year, her matter-of-fact pictures of Haitians outside the school walls drew the attention of an international literacy group that hired her to photograph Haiti's poor for its promotional and educational materials. Free-lance work for newspapers followed. So did the threats and warnings.

In the summer of 1987, after completing school, Saint-Fleur rented a room outside Petionville, a town near Port-au-Prince. One day, a doctor surprised her with a warning: Be careful. When she asked why, he responded with a Haitian proverb: "If I give you water, I should not have to show you how to take a bath."

Haiti was then in the hands of Gen. Henri Namphy's military regime. Fearing populist reprisal, the attaches --civilian thugs used as instruments of terror by the military--tended to target public figures, including journalists, after dark, Saint-Fleur says. She stopped sleeping at home, finding safety in the homes of friends.

The 1991 election of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide introduced a brief period of relative freedom and safety. Saint-Fleur and five others formed the Agence Haitienne d'Images, a collective dedicated to filling the void in Haiti's visual history and providing an archive for writers, journalists and scholars.

They would pinpoint a spot in the tiny country, roughly the size of Vermont, then drop in for a photo mission. Saint-Fleur focused particularly on children. In Haiti, where three-quarters of the more than 6 million people go hungry, many parents abandon their children to lives of exploitation.

"All the hard work is basically dropped on the children," she says.

Her photographs depict young girls scavenging water from shallow puddles or lugging large buckets across the countryside and a boy washing a shiny car with sewer water.

Saint-Fleur wanted "to show how the children are living, to have a record on file."

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