Freelancing in Haiti: the logistics.

It’s been a restorative week.

Mostly we’ve been catching up on sleep and conversations about what happens next—which interviews to chase, which outlets to pitch which stories, which communities to visit next, which architects to work with, which city to settle in. And I’ve been listening to tape. Hours and hours and hours of it.

Looking back now on those mad months before our departure, I’m a bit stunned by how remarkably little time I spent thinking about the logistics of being a foreign—and freelance—journalist in Haiti.

I wasn’t prepared for how exhausted I’d be at the end of each day, how little energy I’d have for editing and writing and getting pitches out. (And yes, posting the promised pictures and video and audio.) But then, I wasn’t prepared for a lot of things.

For one, operating out of Port-au-Prince can be incredibly expensive, even prohibitively so without the backing of a big organization. Unsurprisingly, accommodation has been the most difficult to secure—a simple, furnished room with water and power, and central enough to get around by foot or tap-tap in decent-ish time, is hard to come by, and as likely as not to cost upwards of five times our monthly mortgage rate.

The city’s expansive too, its streets always, always jammed with traffic. It takes a long time to get anywhere. The sun sets early, and it’s not always a good idea to be wandering around after dark (the lack of electricity means navigating the sidewalks can be a great adventure, nevermind the high probability that I will turn left instead of right and promptly lose my way). So unless we’ve got a car and driver, our days in the field are necessarily short. And at 150 US bucks a day, we won’t often have a car and driver.

Then there’s the pre-production—the research, the pre-interviewing… the work I usually do from home. In Haiti, I’m learning, this is all best done in the field. Emails often go unanswered. Phone calls can be confusing (for me, at least, still learning to communicate in the local languages without the help of a fixer) and usually end with the suggestion to ring when we’re in the neighbourhood and ready to meet. “M’ pa gen pwoblem—I have no problem,” they say. Just show up and we’ll talk.

But just showing up can present its own set of challenges. There is, understandably, a lot blan fatigue and mistrust. We are often asked what our intentions are, what we plan on doing with the stories we’re entrusted with, how we will give back to the community we are taking from. We’re told again and again how weary people are of aid workers and foreign journalists parading through their communities, taking pictures, asking a few questions, and piling back into their SUVs, never to be seen or heard from again.

It can be difficult, that first hour, navigating a way in through all the expectations and emotions—both those of the people we’re meeting and our own. We’ve learned to stay as long as we can that first visit, to listen closely to what we’re told, and to be careful with what we promise. If we say we will visit again, we must.

Of course, this is the luxury we’re afforded as freelancers. We’re in Haiti on our own, and for many months. We have the privilege of time to build relationships, to earn trust, to follow the story of a community over a long stretch… and to meditate on that question of what our intentions are, of how we will give back.

We expected this. But perhaps we didn’t expect to struggle as much as we have been with where we fit in the muddy ethical landscape our respective industries occupy here. And the reality of our financial situation may complicate things further: we’ll soon be chasing commissions.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet with many local journalists these last few weeks. Veteran or rookie, they have all told me the same thing: they need more training, better tools—the proper resources to ensure the freedom of press to tell their own stories. Sometime in the next couple of days, I will sit down with Claude Gilles, director of the local chapter of Reporters Sans Frontieres. I hope there’s something we’ll be able to do together—maybe a project that can make use of my past life as a producer of conversations between journalists about the issues we come up against in the course of our business.

In the meantime, I’ll look forward to more conversations with the people we’ve come to know, and the people we hope to. And maybe one of these weeks I’ll  figure out how to take advantage of these long nights, to listen to the day’s tape, to write, to edit, and to get some damn pictures up already.

4 Responses to Freelancing in Haiti: the logistics.

  1. shayla howell

    Love love LOVE your blog! So inspiring – particularly liked the posting on gear, that’s the stuff that drives me bats. Sounds like you’ve figured it out – did you have to sacrifice any bras in the end? Please keep writing xx

    • Thanks so much, Shayla. An addendum to the gear post: always pack extra mic cables. As for the bras, I solved that particular problem by only packing the one I was wearing.

  2. James Thornley

    Jessica – truly inspirational writing. You bring the reader right along side you. Thanks for sharing and all the best as your journey enters 2012. James T

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