DPP Home Profiles I Embraced The Road - Colin Finlay

Friday, June 15, 2007

I Embraced The Road - Colin Finlay

You have to get in close to see the truth. Colin Finlay has made a career of bringing that truth to the eyes of the world—stories that aren't always pretty, but need to be told

Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, February 1991

Finlay took his passion for storytelling to Haiti. Having arrived there at the moment General Raoul Cédras assumed control and Jean-Bertrand Aristide was fleeing in exile, Finlay found himself in what proved to be a dangerous place to work as a photographer. He met several seasoned photographers who helped further develop his skills and resolve.

While on “dawn patrol” one morning, they found a man who had been murdered and left to rot in the street in a pool of his own blood. Finlay froze as the other photographers instinctively began taking pictures. It was Finlay's first time confronting death, and as successive carloads of photographers arrived and began taking pictures—reading the man “his last photographic rites”—Finlay says he was pushed to the periphery as an overwhelming sadness rushed through him.

Recalls Finlay, “I didn't make any pictures that morning. I just observed.”

As news spread of this man lying in the street, says Finlay, “Perhaps as many as 20 photographers had captured the man's last ‘decisive moment.' With the flies just right, the shadows falling across his body just so—I hated what they were doing. That man without a name on a street died alone, and there was nothing I could do to change that.”

That experience helped Finlay become a better documentary photographer. “Without my colleagues' photographs, that man would have died in a vacuum,” he says now. “Those photographers bore witness to the cruelty and savagery of human life, and they gave meaning to that man's death. They were braver, more solid men than I. My mind was still wrapped around the first world. I feared death and was unable to confront it. Haiti would slowly harden my soul and prepare me for the years to come.”

Finlay had asked a veteran photographer if it ever became easier to confront human suffering and was told that it doesn't. For Finlay, “It gets harder and harder. It means my work isn't getting out there enough. I'm not doing enough. I'm not working hard enough.”

Finlay returned to Haiti in the fall of 1993 after General Cédras assumed complete control of the government (and the United States embargo was in full effect). In a tiny hamlet outside of Port-au-Prince, Finlay says he found the ghosts of small children. The village leader explained that the military had cleared out all of the medicine and equipment back to Port-au-Prince. He had lost three of his children due to a lack of medicine. His sole surviving son was sick. Finlay made a portrait of the village leader, “clutching the hand of the only child he had left, a poultice wrapped in leaves and tied with cloth atop the child's head.”

Adds Finlay, “It was my lasting image.” The leader looked directly into Finlay's eyes and, via a translator, asked that he “tell the world we are the ones who are suffering.” Finlay realized he had just taken an unspoken vow, an oath.

“It was my responsibility and I accepted it gladly,” he says. “The embargo wasn't affecting Cédras and the military dictatorship; it trickled down and had taken the lives of these children. They also died because their parents had voted in the last election. Suddenly, I understood what my veteran colleague's words had meant. Years later, they resonate even further, for now I know that I must also try to fill the emptiness I felt inside myself as I spoke to the father of that dead child. He was a part of my life, and I his. That's when I realized I could never do enough.”


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