Haunting Images of A Nation's Nightmare

UNDER A GRUDGING SUN: PHOTOGRAPHS FROM HAITI LIB'ER'E, 1986-1988 by Alex Webb, New York: Thames & Hudson, 85 pp., $19.95

EARLY in this decade, conventional wisdom had it that photojournalism was in decline, marked by the passing of Life magazine in 1972. It seemed that the era of Margaret Bourke-White and W. Eugene Smith, photographers who lived their assignments and became cultural heroes, had succumbed to television and the video camera.

But in the 1980s, most of the world's leading news magazines and newspapers, altered their formats, giving greater space to photographs, particularly color photographs. As a result, images have more editorial clout; in fact, the orchestration of images is frequently as important as the coordination of print material. Increasingly, photojournalists receive equal billing with writers.

The use of color photographs in print journalism depends on a decade of technological progress in color reproduction. Yet one can argue that what is called the ``new color photojournalism'' predates the capacity of newspapers to use it. One of the movemnet's pioneers is Alex Webb, who has worked for the picture agency Magnum Photos since 1976.

The new color photojournalism is not just tinted black-and-white photography. As every amateur snap-shooter knows, color is assertive and acerbic. A well-balanced scene in black and white may appear fickle or vexing in color. Reds and yellows push forward; blues recede. Moreover, the color palette has strong emotional associations.

What Webb and other contemporary photojournalists have attempted to do is modulate color in such a way that it is never merely sweet, while expanding its connotations in order to depict the daily life of a place.

In Webb's first book, ``Hot Light/Half-Made World'' (1986), which was photographed in the tropics, color occasionally overwhelms the subject. But in these new photographs, taken in the two-year period after Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti, color and subject are in tense equilibrium. The horror of Haiti - malnourished children, political repression, show killing - effuses from these pictures in traumatized colors.

The strength of Webb's photography, indeed of the new color photojournalism, is that it eschews simple storytelling. Where Margaret Bourke-White and W. Eugene Smith would be sure that each image was part of a clear, linear narrative, Webb sequences his pictures like a dream - or a nightmare. In one image, we observe sycophants at a military reception; in the next picture we are in a private home in the village of Lascahobas, or outside a movie-house in Port-au-Prince, or part of a street crowd standing beside a mutilated body.

The experience is all the more grisly for being incoherent, and all the more sharp because the viewer comes to realize that each of these scenes could be taking place simultaneously. No one image has a greater claim to truth than any other.

Anyone who goes to the abyss and brings back pictures will be accused of voyeurism or pessimism. No doubt these images teeter on the brink of spectacle. But they do so not to deliver cheap shock, but because ordinary life in Haiti pitches and rolls on the edge of delirium.

Webb's images of Haiti are profoundly disturbing. ``Under a Grudging Sun'' presents the conundrum of modern communications media. It observes, and observes passionately, that that which can be made visible cannot be so easily changed.

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