Remembering Azil St. John De Dieu
The facts: Once a plantation owner’s granary, Azil St. John De Dieu was transformed into a home for the elderly in the 1960’s. As Haiti’s fortunes dwindled so did the resources for those living in the home. When I visited it in July of 2010, St. John's was little more than a depilated structure housing about 70 infirm men and women. Following the earthquake what little they were given before became all the more hard to come by. Food, medicine and clothes were all cut back and the people of the home were left in the most dire of situations. Hard to reach and isolated, these people easily went overlooked.
Traveling with Stanley Greene: I would have never found St. John's had it not been for my traveling companion, colleague and friend Stanley Greene who passed away in 2017 and whom I miss and think about often. The day we visited St. John's we were traveling around the Petit-Goâve region. It was an uneventful day and we were disappointed in our work—at the end of the trip we felt we were wasting precious time and not seeing what we should. Going from one location to another, as he was talking on the phone to someone else, we heard our driver Evans mention that there was a home for the elderly that was abandoned to the world. Immediately Stanley and I knew we had to go there and couldn't believe that we might have missed this place had we not overheard the conversation. It took us the entire afternoon to find it, but Stanley was adamant: we had to reach it and see what the conditions were like.
Please be advised that some of the photos are graphic.
When we finally arrived, we were incensed by what we saw at the home. Following my visit I wrote: Those with sight lead the blind. When someone comes down with a fever, they are looked over with kindness by women who have tended to sickness all their lives. A cripple from the waste down uses his arms and hands to feed a man who is crippled from the waste up. And then there was the man with the open gash on his ankle, the woman with such a high fever lying on a bed in a courtyard with a fever that made it look as if she'd pass away any second and those too far out of their minds to get up off the hard floor. The terrible conditions we saw there overwhelmed our sense of purpose—what use where photos in a place that needed so much then and there? We knew that no matter how many photographs we took that day, it would do nothing for the woman with the fever who, for all we knew as we drove back to Port au Prince, might already have succumbed to her ailment, or for the man with the open wound.
We visited St. John's on our second to last day in Haiti. As we were packing that evening talking about how we might get word out, Stanley started to seethe at all the photographer saving the world talk that was passing between us. He stopped talking and his jaw clenched. He did not so much say as growl: "Take all of that shit you're packing now out of your bag because tomorrow we're bringing everything we have back to St. John's."
That night we emptied our suitcases of our clothes and toiletries: toothpaste, mouth wash, bug spray, hydrogen peroxide—big and small, whatever we had was going back to those at St. John's. Stanley called our driver Evans and said that we're going back, not exactly news that Evans wanted to hear because that would mean another 8 hours on the road the next day for a meeting that wouldn't last more than 30 minutes because we had a plane to catch later in the day. And for us it wouldn't be cheap because Evans would need to be paid for an entire day—but there was no arguing with Stanley. On the way we stopped at a pharmacy and bought all we could with the remaining cash we had on hand at the end of the trip. We knew that our efforts would not mean much for these people: a few tubes of toothpaste, a trash bag full of clothes and momentary antiseptic would only do so much, but it was the need to at least try that compelled us to go back. We wanted to say face to face to the people that we photographed that we would not forget about them. I still feel inadequate of not being able to have done more. But, alas, hopefully these photos will compel us to search out for others living in similar conditions and make it better for future generations.
I do believe that photos can make a difference in the grand arc of time. In the civil rights struggles photos did not stop men and women from being mauled by dogs or doused with fire hoses or, worse, stop the murders at the hands of men with rope, but over time they addressed the overall situation and did play a role helping define what is acceptable and what can no longer be tolerated but must be remedied.