Deborah Sontag (The New York Times) reports on the work of Vlad Sokhin, a photographer who has been focusing on Haiti’s restaveks for a series called “Restavek: Child Slavery in Haiti.” Sontag explains: “Haiti is estimated to have 250,000 restaveks—children working as unpaid domestic servants after their parents, who cannot afford to raise them, give them away.” While the photo above seems to be benign enough, most of the other photos in the series were positively bone-chilling. Here are excerpts of the article with links to the full version and the series of sobering photos:
Twelve-year-old Judeline crouches at the feet of a much younger girl, lifting high a makeup kit so the little girl, Boubou, can apply a colored pencil to her brow. Boubou studies herself intently in the kit’s mirror; Judeline, hidden to her, stares at us with a look that seems both humiliated and beseeching. Taken by the photographer Vlad Sokhin for a series called “Restavek: Child Slavery in Haiti,’’ it is one of the most haunting images (Slide 4) of a Haitian servant child that I have ever seen. Judeline’s hair is close-cropped, boyish. Boubou, the 5-year-old daughter of the family for whom Judeline works, is beribboned. Boubou has natural, apparent self-regard; Judeline, her bra strap slipping down her thin arm, has learned to be self-effacing to survive.
It is not easy to photograph people who are invisible in their own society, to shine a light on them and at the same time reveal how unseen they are to those around them. That is the strength of what Mr. Sokhin does, perhaps partly because he approached the subject with the outrage of a fresh eye. Born in Russia and educated in Lisbon, he now lives in Sydney, Australia, and had never set foot in the Americas, much less in Haiti, until last year.
He visited New York last fall to take part in the Eddie Adams Workshop for photojournalists and in a group exhibition. With a few free weeks between the two events, he said in a phone interview from Australia, “I thought I’d just go to Haiti and see what’s there.” While preparing for his trip, Mr. Sokhin, who is drawn to post-disaster and post-conflict societies, happened upon the memoir of a former child servant, Jean-Robert Cadet, who is Haiti’s best-known restavek “abolitionist.” Mr. Sokhin was struck by his story. He had never heard of the restavek phenomenon, he said, and to discover that, in the 21st century, a nation born of a slave revolt was “using its own children as slaves was ridiculous to me.’’
[. . .] In 1990, I wrote a long story on the restaveks for The Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine. This was before any child advocacy organization had taken up their plight, before groups like the Restavek Freedom Foundation were working to defend, protect and educate them. The phenomenon was everywhere — scruffy, scrawny children rising before dawn to empty chamber pots, bedding down at night on piles of rags, enduring beatings and sexual assault — but it was rarely discussed. Still, many Haitians found it shameful. And amid the relative idealism of that period, not long after the despotic “President for Life” Jean-Claude Duvalier had fled into exile, it seemed possible that the practice would be relegated to the ash bin of history along with other egregious abuses.
How dispiriting, then, to gaze into the eyes of Mr. Sokhin’s subject Judeline and see the present-day reflection of the sad-eyed 12-year-old restavek named Judith whose painful situation I documented so long ago. While much has been written about restaveks in the decades since, Mr. Sokhin said he found little “visual evidence” of the phenomenon. In many photographs, restaveks were indistinguishable from other poor children — they were dressed raggedly, looked malnourished and lugged water in buckets bigger than themselves. To document their plight freshly, it was crucial to show them in context, inside the homes where they lived and worked. [. . .]
[Photo above: Vlad Sokhin (Agentur Focus); John, 40, with his restavek, Mamaika, 8, who has been living with him since the 2010 earthquake.]