The day after the earthquake, when news from Haiti was dominating headlines and airwaves, 31-year-old Valerian Mazataud decided he wanted a first-hand account of the situation. Mazataud, a journalist and photographer who has been working with the Concordian since February 2009, said that while his decision to go to Haiti was made quickly, it was not made in haste.
“I had been interested in covering a big emergency event,” he said. “That’s why I’m doing journalism. I had been waiting to get more experience and more contacts, but when this happened, I decided on the spot that it would be a good thing to do now.”
Mazataud left Montreal Jan. 18 on a flight to the Dominican Republic. Once he arrived there, he found some other reporters from Montreal and hitched a ride to Port-au-Prince with Radio-Canada’s cameraman. After a full day of driving, Mazataud arrived in the Haitian capital where he stayed until Jan. 29.
While there, he took photos and filed stories for Le Devoir and Job Boom, as well as several smaller publications and online media outlets.
Even though you felt prepared, were you at all nervous about the trip?
Yes, but the nerves came from what we were seeing here. On all the covers of the newspapers, everything we saw here and around the world was very scary. I was expecting to find hell on Earth on every street corner.
Was that the situation once you got there?
The situation there was actually quite different than what we saw through the window the media was giving us. I was surprised how much life was going on, and how quickly life returned to normal, or as normal as they could make it feel. People were walking around the streets, talking and smiling.
If it wasn’t for the destroyed buildings, it would really look like life as normal. Of course when you went to the hospital and the refugee camp, that’s where you saw that something was wrong.
But really, it was surprising to see how fast people were willing to return to their normal lives. One of my first mornings there, there were only a couple of shops opened on the street. By the end of the day, there were thousands.
How did your family react when you told them you were going?
They were supportive. They’ve seen me travel for journalism before, so they trust me to do this. They trust I wouldn’t do anything unsafe.
Once you decided to go, and once you talked about it with your family, what were the next steps you took?
I made a lot of calls. I wanted to go, but I wanted to know what I was getting in to. I spoke with people from NGOs and other journalists who had regular contact with reporters in Haiti. That helped me gain confidence, because I realized that these people were working over there. They were doing their jobs. If the situation was OK enough for them to be doing their work there, I could do it.
I also had to find someone who was interested in carrying my work. Once I had that, I booked my flight to the Dominican Republic, got insurance with Reporters Without Borders and tied up the loose ends I had with work here. I bought some equipment and dry food, but I didn’t need the food in the end. It was nice to be prepared, but a week after the earthquake, little shops were opening again, the Canadian Army was there with thousands of tons of food.
What were some of the challenges you faced?
Well one of the typical problems for journalists was finding an Internet connection. We would find stories and report in the morning, then have to start writing the stories and captions around 2 p.m. You have to be ready ahead of time because you might have trouble finding a connection. It was like that for all the media that had small teams there. So if something happened in the afternoon, most of those reporters would miss it.
What was most surprising for you? What was the biggest shock?
Things are moving very fast. It was a very different picture there than what the news was saying. You wouldn’t see a dead body on the street unless you were looking for it. You wouldn’t see a looting unless you went right to where it was happening. The city is living its life. Maybe it’s not a regular life right now, because people are starving and prices have tripled. But it’s their life they’re living right now. Even though I’m a journalist, I still get fooled. The media can’t represent everything. It can’t give the whole picture. There has to be a focus on a few aspects of the whole picture, which means the people at home don’t get the whole story. Even when you’re a journalist, you tend to forget that.