Covering Haitian quake rocks world of photojournalist

Looking through the eye of a photographer isn’t always pleasant, especially when covering the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti.

Toronto photographer, Lucas Oleniuk,  was sent to the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince two days after the disaster struck in January.

Although he was there to capture the devastation through the lens of his camera, the harsh reality of events were impossible to ignore.

“You get a little braver when you put that camera up. When you put that camera up you kind of separate yourself,” Oleniuk told students at the Centennial College’s Centre for Creative Communication.

For the first time in his career, Oleniuk was practical and cautious about his plans to cover the disaster. He made sure to hire efficient fixers, rent a good truck, secure his accommodation and ensure his safety was in tact – vital factors he hadn’t always considered in the past.

Getting to Haiti wasn’t an easy task. It involved flying to Miami, then Santo Domingo and finally driving to Port-au-Prince.

Once he arrived, he was met with more difficulties – trying to find a driver that spoke both Spanish and Creole was a key concern. His main objective however, was in finding the news, so he and his crew spent an hour just driving around the city.

“We needed to file right away because there was a demand for imagery and reports coming out of Port-au-Prince,” Oleniuk said.

“When you get there, you are looking for how bad it is, the hardest hit neighbourhoods and something that nears the devastation that you are anticipating to find.”

What he did find were widespread scenes of tragedy, devastation and death. In one instance, he captured the beating of a suspected looter who was later set on fire and left to die on the roadside.

Having covered seven previous disasters, Oleniuk felt he had more than enough experience, but he soon realized that Haiti was much different.

“When you are in downtown, Port-au-Prince you are a long way from any help,” Oleniuk said.

“There was no communication and nobody knew what was going on. You’re sitting there photographing people who think the world is ending.”

Some people may have been unsure of what was going on, but there was on thing everyone had in common: fear.

Oleniuk stayed in a room with on the main floor of a two-storey building. Going to sleep at night was usually preceded by a discussion on whether to sleep inside or outside.

“I was surprised to find myself genuinely nervous for my own safety. The tremors and aftershocks were completely unnerving,” he said.

“It was beyond me. I never thought I’d have that conversation. I never thought I would have to ask myself those kinds of life and death questions.”