Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
July 19, 2010

Brendan Hoffman: About Those Haitian Smiles

If I said The BAG was returning to the Haiti story today to recognize the six-month-and-one-week anniversary of the earthquake, I hope you would know I was making a point about today’s rampant addiction to commemoration, and how the meaning of tragedy is so compromised by short-attention spans and the need for ever-fresher dramas that we must now resort to the setting of a timer to remember, in the place of more purposeful and spontaneous curiosity, and a more genuine (and sustained) motivation to attend.

The second reason I wanted to return to Brendan Hoffman’s recent images from Haiti is to reinforce the picture of the Haitian character.

What we don‘t see in these two photographs, in the smiles, are a people either in denial of their circumstances or consumed to the core by them.  That’s particularly impressive in the top photo, given this work crew is out digging a drainage ditch along the edges of the profoundly flat, rock-hard, baking hot, remote, expansive and possibly not-so-transitional Corail camp outside Port-au-Prince.

Last night, I was able to watch the whole interview Amy Goodman conducted last week with relief agent Sean Penn about the situation in Haiti. Besides the way Penn describes the hideous lack of cooperation between the NGO’s there, the way he described the majority of Haitians was as impressive as it was consistent. I liked this one line that linked the two together while summing up both. He said: “Whenever we’re talking about anything other than the Haitian people, we know we’ve got a problem.”

Penn kept returning to a point which helps explains the Haitian temperament — although its something the American mind, awash in commercial culture, would not readily understand. Emphasizing how Haitians have long lived without comfort “on any real level” and feel “no expectation or… right to”,  it’s something — at this point, and especially in these days — they are mostly strengthened by.


caption 1: Members of a work crew digging a drainage ditch along the edges of the Corail camp take a break on July 6, 2010, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The camp, located far on the outskirts of the city, houses mostly people who chose to leave the crowded camp located on a former golf course in Petionville.

caption 2: Pupils sit in a classroom at a public school on July 7, 2010, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Most schools didn’t re-open until April, three months after the earthquake.

(7 am – added last paragraph)

–Michael Shaw


About the Photographer

Brendan Hoffman

Brendan Hoffman (b. Albany, NY, 1980) is a photographer based in Washington, DC. He began his career in 2007 after working at a desk for several years in the non-profit sector. He divides his time between client and personal work. Assignments often involve covering news and politics for publications such as TIME magazine or the New York Times. His personal projects reflect his interest in the ways in which economic and political structures shape modern society. His ongoing project “Stand the Middle Ground” is an exploration of contemporary middle class America in the context of free trade and the decline of manufacturing in a small Iowa town. Brendan has received awards for his photography from Pictures of the Year International, the White House News Photographers Association, and other organizations. He has worked in a variety of countries for both editorial and NGO clients, and is a co-founder of Prime. See more of Brendan's work for BagNews here.

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