Hope amidst Haiti’s ruins

Port-au-Prince: Children in make shift schools. Picture: Richard Hanson
Port-au-Prince: Children in make shift schools. Picture: Richard Hanson
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IT was Quinet Desir’s story which most profoundly affected Sheffield photographer Richard Hanson.

“He was my age and the kind of guy I could imagine going for a drink with,” recalls Richard, aged 43.

“He told me that in the morning he had everything a man could want; a steady job, a house, a wife and a family. By evening he’d lost it all. His wife died right next to him in the rubble of their home. He had a 13-year-old daughter who was killed. He couldn’t even find his wallet.“

It was 2010 and Richard, of Roe Lane, Pitsmoor, had been commissioned to capture the aftermath of one of history’s deadliest natural disasters - the Haiti earthquake in which an estimated 316,000 people died.

The pictures he took, as one of a small band of international photographers allowed into the Caribbean country, will be exhibited in Sheffield next month.

But at the time his thoughts were purely on the job at hand: to find morale-boosting tales of hope and humanity amid the darkness.

For 20 years he had been tackling similar projects in the world’s most dangerous and devastated places

From the aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide in 1994 to the 1999 ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and through to conflicts in Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia, he had been there with his camera, always looking for something to provide that spark of relief.

But perhaps none had ever hit him quite so hard as the people he met in Haiti.

“Quinet was living in a makeshift shelter set up under some tarpaulin in a school yard,” he explains. “He approached me because he heard me speaking English and thought he could help. He was an accountant and spoke English well. His two-year-old daughter Isobel had survived because she’d been at his parents’ house but everything else was gone. And yet he held himself with this untouched dignity. He was such a good guy.

“We actually did end up going for a drink together. I’ve done this job all my professional life but it was hard not to get involved this time. I went back again six months later and then a year on, and we ended up trying to help him get a job but the economy is still devastated, there was nothing. And he’s not alone. The situation so many people found themselves in was devastating.”

Another one of those people was little Evelyn Beauvois, an eight-year-old school girl who was trapped for three days in the rubble of her home. Both her parents died in the collapse.

“She was so vibrant and lively,” says Richard, who was hired by Tearfund, a Christian international aid agency, to highlight the charity work being done. “She was funny and intelligent but she had this scar running down her face from the ordeal and, except for her grandma, she’d been left alone in the world. It was agonising to think what she had been through, and, I suppose, what she still had to go through.”

The job had its dangers too.

Looting and violence were not uncommon among increasingly desperate people , and Richard, who is originally from Newcastle but moved to Sheffield in 2001 after falling in love with the city, was warned not to go into refugee camps at night.

“We were in a walled compound not far away,” he says. “You’d occasionally hear gunfire, but you sort of got used to it.”

It was, in the end, a job well done. Tearfund were widely regarded as one of the charities which contributed - and is still contributing - most to trying to restore some semblance of normal life in Haiti.

“You hope your pictures can somehow in some way make a difference,” says Richard, himself a devout Christian. “I think it’s important to show even in those darkest times, humanity and hope remain which we don’t always hear about on the news. But they do. There is always kindness in the world. I hope the pictures help show that.”

Haiti: Beyond The Rubble runs at The Workstation, in Paternoster Row, city centre, from October 3 to November 3. Admission free.

Catastrophe on an unimaginable scale

THE Haiti earthquake of 2010 is widely noted as among the worst natural disasters in history with the a death toll estimated at 316,000 people. The 7.0 magnitude quake also left more than one million people homeless and caused the collapse of 250,000 homes and roughly 30,000 commercial buildings. The Presidential Palace, the National Assembly building and the main jail were all destroyed in the capital Port-au-Prince.

“The catastrophe was just unimaginable,” says Richard Hanson, one of the few international photographers allowed into the country after the disaster.

“You’d be walking down one street and it wouldn’t seem so bad, then you’d walk round a corner and everything was gone. The destruction was just indiscriminate. I’d never seen anything like it.”

Heavy aftershocks, after the initial rumble on Tuesday January 12, continued for nearly a month. Eighteen months on the country continues to struggle with the immensity of damage.