By: Rob Tornoe
In January 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti and devastated its capital, Port-au-Prince, killing more than 200,000 people and destroying much of the country’s infrastructure, including the Presidential Palace and Parliament. Suddenly, the impoverished country, which ranks number five on the Failed State index, became the darling of the news media, which flocked to its dilapidated shores to cover the next disaster story. But it didn’t take long for them to get bored, pack up, and leave, forgetting the human suffering and poverty left behind.
Leave it to the cartoonists to save the day.
The editorial team of Cartoon Movement — American cartoonist Matt Bors (syndicated by Universal Uclick) and Dutch cartoonist Tjeerd Royaards — joined by video journalist Caroline Bins, traveled to Haiti on a monthlong trip to explore the problems facing the country, told from the point of view of the Haitian people.
The method they’ve chosen is comics journalism, an emerging form of reporting using cartoons as the primary medium to tell the story. They found a Haitian cartoonist and paired him with a couple of Haitian journalists and aim to produce 75 pages of comics journalism, offering an inside perspective on the multitude of problems facing Haiti.
“In comics journalism you have the ability to immerse your reader in your story in a way you can’t in prose, shift between imagery and text, and display graphics and human stories in a way that broadcast news doesn’t accommodate,” said Bors, editor of Cartoon Movement. “Comics journalism is a great way to tell stories in an era where websites have become seas of text with nearly identical content.”
Both Bors and Royaards knew from the start that in order to get to the heart of the issues in Haiti, they would need to focus on Haiti’s reconstruction from the point of view of the Haitian people, which led to the decision to hire Haitian journalists to produce the stories.
“The problems here are complex and trace back long before the quake,” Bors said. “We knew that doing anything comprehensive on Haiti would require people who have been here their whole lives and who are trained in journalism.”
Bors’ first step in finding the proper team to pull this off was to contact all the reporters in Haiti that he had been following on social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook. Haiti’s national media is largely radio based, and the print media is nearly all French, so finding the right team required Bors and Royaards to visit Haiti and pound the pavement, figuring out who was good and getting familiar with them and their work before they worked together.
Finding a cartoonist was difficult in a nation that depends so little on traditional print media, even though the media that does exist understands the power of using cartoons.
“The only daily newspaper of Haiti, Le Nouvelliste, prints the editorial cartoon in full color at the top of the front page, because they believe in the power of cartoons to convey a message,” Royaards said. “But, in a country of 9.5 million people, Le Nouvelliste has a circulation of 15,000, so the impact they have is very limited.”
The Cartoon Movement team settled on Chevelin Pierre, one of the few Haitian cartoonists they came across who was well versed in sequential comics. He draws full-page comics for a free paper called Chimen Lakay, the most well-read publication in Haiti, with a circulation of 500,000 copies. Unlike the country’s two main newspapers, Le Nouvelliste and Le Matin, Chimen Lakay is published in Creole instead of French. Although French is the country’s official language, most Haitians can’t read it, and Creole is more widely understood across class lines.
Once in Haiti, Bors and Royaards found themselves in a culture filled with poverty and a total absence of government. Bors has experience cartooning in dangerous and impoverished environments. He accompanied fellow cartoonists Ted Rall (syndicated by Universal Uclick) and Steven Cloud on a monthlong trip to Afghanistan, chronicling his journey through his cartoons. But for Royaards, the environment of Haiti was somewhat of a shock.
“The state is powerless to provide even the most basic services, such as water, electricity, street signs, decent roads, etc.,” Royaards said. “Haitian society is held together by stopgap measures, but there isn’t any meaningful progress. This is something we hope to show in the comic.”
A central role of the comic will pertain to the tent camps that make up a large part of the living conditions. One of the tent camps in Port-au-Prince is so large, it’s divided into two city parts, Delmas and Bourdon. Most of the tents are well constructed and include a market area, sanitation, trash bins, and solar-powered lights, but these improvements are also painful reminders of the permanency of these camps.
One highlight of the trip was a six-hour visit by Martha Stewart and Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren, who appeared for a photo-op with Haitian artists whose products are on sale at Macy’s. It’s emblematic of the world’s notion of helping Haiti, and the lack of focus that is being used to repair the destitute country.
“It’s hard for us to see a less-than-a-day visit by celebrities in a positive light,” Royaards said.
For Bors, the interest of the project is to bring attention to the real needs of Haiti, moving it past a cause célèbre for the famous and a sporadic point of interest for the international media.
“We wanted to come and tell the story of what it’s like rebuilding when most of the cameras have left and the aid money is dwindling,” Bors said. “The daily grind of the news cycle, problems in Washington, Arab Spring, and other issues have wiped Haiti from the headlines. I’d like to keep the focus on the persistent problems here longer than it’s fashionable and popular.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher Magazine and edits the satirical humor magazine Delaware Punchline. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.