Lorenzo Moscia’s Haiti

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An Italian lawyer turned photojournalist found himself at the centre of international peace-keeping efforts in Haiti. WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES

“It was inconceivable to my father that he would end up with a son who wanted to pursue a career in the arts,” says photographer Lorenzo Moscia. Like many of his father’s generation in Italy, having lost nearly everything to the Second World War, the aftermath thrust him into manhood, and having to provide financial support to his struggling, large family of siblings.

By the time his father had become a grown man himself, married, with a child of his own, he had worked tirelessly for many decades. So it’s not surprising that Lorenzo, his only child, would be raised to prize hard graft.

Lorenzo’s upbringing in Rome was fairly typical, albeit lonesome – a constant quest for friendships. His parents relocated within Rome when he was 11, and he suddenly found himself starting a new school across town – the local Catholic school – surrounded by nothing but male priests. “It was the longest period of boredom I have ever experienced,” he says. This was alleviated somewhat by his parents’ purchase of a VHS camcorder in 1987. “I started making short films and would rope my cousins into taking part. At the time I wanted to become a filmmaker.”

But Lorenzo lacked the conviction to match his passion and decided to study law instead, not least because university would postpone his inevitable conscription into the Italian military. “I followed the case of Gerry Conlon and the Guildford Four closely while I was studying law; I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Gareth Peirce.” Peirce was the human rights lawyer who successfully defended the Guildford Four after what is regarded as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in British history.

He took a much-needed study break in the summer of 1997 and travelled to Easter Island, one of the most isolated islands in the world. He was planning to make a short film about the islanders – the Rapa Nui – a population back then of some 2500 people of Polynesian descent who, despite having no documented history, maintain their distinct centuries-old heritage. “My friend told me I’d be mad not to take a camera on such a trip as this, so I bought a second-hand 1978 Nikon FE, a 24mm and 50mm lens, 20 rolls of film and set off to Easter Island – ‘Isla de Pascua’ – via Santiago in Chile.”

Captivated by the gentility of the islanders and the sheer scale of the moai – some 800-plus monolithic statues of giant heads and torsos dotted around the World Heritage isle – he started documenting the lives of the indigenous people, conducting short interviews with the locals. But the filmmaking came to an abrupt end when, while sat on a rock next to the sea, an angry wave slammed into him, engulfing him and ruining his video equipment. “I had to resort to taking pictures, and that was really the start of my career as a photojournalist,” he says.

He had befriended a Rapa Nui family who soon invited him into their lives; together they rode bareback to the north coast, where they’d pitch camp in caves near the sea. Then they’d fish, swim, build fires, and eat. “I’d almost completely lost track of time when I was with them, and I only ever pulled out my camera if something caught my eye.” He returned to his studies in Italy a changed man.

Back in Rome, Lorenzo was astounded to discover that only two of the 20 rolls of film he’d developed contained any usable images. But those images, although few in number, offered an astonishing portrayal of a little-known people in the furthest place on earth.

There were none of the usual travelogue images of the gargantuan moai statues that are synonymous with the remote isle; instead, he captured the exquisite simplicity of the natives’ lives – fishing with a tin can tied to a nylon wire, riding bareback, lighting a campfire, sharing tender moments. The more he pored over the images, the more he became convinced that their story needed to be told. So he contacted the editor of Il Diario, a magazine in Milano, and offered his images. “My pictures were published in a six-page exposé. I couldn’t believe I had actually been paid for what was nothing more than a hobby.”

But nothing could prepare him for what followed. Lorenzo faxed photocopies of the feature to his newfound friends, and that fax eventually became a prominent feature at the entrance of city hall – it was overwhelmingly well-received. But the seminal moment came in 1998 by way of a phone call. A Chilean archaeologist who had seen the article contacted Lorenzo and invited him to participate in a photography exhibition at Universidad de Chile in Santiago. “I was nearing the end of my degree but returned to Easter Island almost exactly a year to the date of my first trip to take more pictures for the exhibition. It was mid-August – winter in that part of the world – and the island was chilly and wild, with few tourists. I stayed with the same family I had met the year before.”

Worried he’d run out of film, this time Lorenzo took 100 rolls with him, as well as a new 35-70mm f/2.8. “Easter Island was beautiful, and I didn’t want to leave. I started to think that maybe, just maybe, I could devote my life to photography. To hell with my law degree and military service. I knew I’d be charged with desertion, but what did I care? I wanted to live there, to learn to fish with nylon and a tin can, and maybe buy a few cows.”

But a phone call from his father and hearing his mother’s desperate cries in the background were enough to jolt him. “My father said only this: ‘In life you have to finish what you begin.’ He was referring to my law degree. I knew I had to go home, so I abandoned any ideas of an exhibition, packed up, said my goodbyes, and returned to Italy, but I never once stopped thinking about my time with the Rapa Nui.”

Lorenzo eventually accepted an apprenticeship at a law firm specialising in family law, but his heart just wasn’t in it. He kept finding ways to show his work around Rome – at community centres, social clubs, pretty much anywhere with a plug socket and a blank wall on which he could project his images and give a talk. He decided, after all that time, to contact the Chilean archaeologist who earlier had offered to organise an exhibition of his work. That phone call paved the way for Rapa Nui: Factor Humano – not just an exhibition of images but an event that celebrated, on a grand scale, the indigenous people of Easter Island, made possible with the financial support of the Italian Embassy in Chile.

“The Rapa Nui are critical of the way in which photographers have tended to portray them, like some sort of an evolutionary curiosity – Indians adorned with features, wearing loin cloths, hopping around with spears in their hands. They resented the intense scrutiny of their heritage and being reduced to postcards in trinket shops. I never treated them as an anomaly,” he says. “I never treated them as props. I got to know them intimately, as they are – as parents and friends and lovers who share their lives, their food, their drink, their marijuana.”

A representative of the Rapa Nui came to the exhibition and was so appreciative he asked Lorenzo if there was anything he could do for him. “I said I wanted to return to Easter Island. He mentioned that a cargo ship would be departing from Valparaíso within days and said I could hitch a ride. So I did. I boarded the Orlando II – just me, 16 crewmen and a hold full of onions, potatoes and gas cylinders. And that’s how my second reportage series came to be.”

Lorenzo made Chile his permanent home in early 2000, where he carved a life for himself as a photojournalist. The country’s 17-year dictatorship created an ever-growing appetite for social reportage that was born of a need to come to terms with the scale of Pinochet’s human rights abuses. “I became involved with two inspiring Chilean photojournalists – Rodrigo Gomez [Rovira] and Claudio Pérez – who were collaborating with Agence Vu in an effort to help bring South American reportage to nations overseas.”

For his next project, he documented the Chilean police – the Carabineros. He patrolled the streets of Santiago with a team of Carabineros for six months, armed with a bullet-proof vest and a camera, photographing crime scenes and, at times, crimes as they were being committed. “But when I was invited to accompany the Minister of Defence at the time, Michelle Bachelet [now president of Chile], on a visit to Haiti shortly after the civil war of 2004, I accepted without hesitation. That visit lasted only a couple of days, but I knew I wanted to return, so I contacted Bachelet’s office and asked for clearance to allow me to document Chilean soldiers in Haiti. Before long I was boarding an Antonov plane transporting helicopters and supplies to Port-au-Prince.” For three weeks, Lorenzo lived on a Chilean military base in Cap-Haïtien, and in his official capacity as a reporter gained a unique insight into Chile’s peacekeeping operations.

“There were images everywhere in Haiti,” he says of the country’s social and political landscape. “One night, the soldiers were called out to supervise a voodoo ritual. It was 40 degrees and we were buckling from the heat, in our bullet-proof vests and riot gear. We drank six litres of water that day while patrolling hordes of Haitians in the streets drinking rum, shouting and dropping to floor in a trance.”

Lorenzo travelled to Haiti several times over the years, and like all freelance photojournalists with no assurance of military protection, he was responsible for his own personal safety. There was an international military police presence in Haiti at the time, trying to help quell the violence in Cité Soleil. “On my third trip to Haiti, I was out on patrol with gendarme from Canada, Serbia and Chile. I saw a man lying face down in the street, his feet bound. He was dead. Discarded.

“There was lots of confusion outside a local market one day. From a distance I saw a guy wielding a machete. Two of the officers I was with jumped out of the patrol car and drew their weapons. The crowd dispersed, leaving behind, in full view, a smoldering corpse in the middle of the road. Some people watched us, defiant, without uttering a word. Then a woman shouted out, ‘That’s what happens to thieves!’ Apparently the man had stolen food from one of the stalls and was stopped by the locals. They cut off his hands, wrapped rubber tyres around him and burned him alive.

“I will never forget that day: the Chilean policeman scrambled for some rope to try to drag him away. The Serbian soldier started vomiting behind a car. The smell was unbearable. What I remember most, though, was watching the people watching us, as if we were clearing rubbish from the street.”

The road from jurisprudence to reportage was circuitous, and extraordinary – and Lorenzo discovered himself en route, due in no small part to that angry wave that destroyed his video camera on his first trip to Easter Island. But had he not been raised the son of a grafter, had he not had the determination to complete his studies, to fulfil his military obligations, to find his way back to Easter Island via the hull of a ship transporting sacks of root vegetables, he might never have found himself – regardless of the wave.

“After six years of studying law I did find some pleasure in the vaulted courtrooms and in the routine of it all – having to wake early, dress smartly, prepare a case. Sometimes I can still feel the sting of my parents’ eyes on me. I’m married now and a father of three, and while my income is variable, and at times even nonexistent, nothing compares with my life today.”

For more of Lorenzo Moscia’s work, go to his website 

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Source Article from http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/04/lorenzo-moscia-photojournalist-haiti/