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February 15, 2013 7:46 pm
Everywhere photographer Paolo Woods goes in Haiti he hears a radio playing. “It’s on all the time,” he says, “when you go into shops, when you go into restaurants ... it’s like a background sound.” More than 300 stations broadcast on the island and 97 per cent of the population own a set. Radios are a vital part of the country’s culture; a space where every section of society – from the Catholic nun to the voodoo priestess – gets a voice and an audience.
Radios were introduced to Haiti in the 1960s, when US missionaries donated receivers hoping listeners would tune into Radio Lumière, an evangelical station still broadcasting today. “What is funny is that the first radios they gave didn’t have a choice,” says Woods. “They had only one frequency and that was Radio Lumière and so people would open them up and transform them so they could change the frequency.”
This do-it-yourself ethos persists to this day, with small communities or groups of friends often starting their own stations in rural areas. With a generator, an antenna, a mic and a mixer, anyone can make themselves heard. “I was astonished when you got to places that were very, very remote, I’m talking about four hours walking in the mountains, and people knew … what was happening in the capital,” says Woods.
For this project, the Dutch-Canadian photographer shot DJs and speakers at radio stations in his adopted home town of Les Cayes, a town in southern Haiti with at least 30 radio stations for a population of 50,000. The photographs of people holding their radios were taken even closer to home – all within a 100m radius of Woods’s house.
Programming reflects all quarters of Haitian society; broadcasts cover political debate and religious proselytising but also more informal conversation and gossip. Woods says the stations act as hubs for communities: “People drop by, fans drop by. When I was taking those photographs, very regularly I would find a microphone in front of my mouth and they would be asking me questions.”
Radio also provided tangible support during the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. The one station that survived the quake, Signal FM, was used to dispense instructions during the cholera epidemic that followed. In a nation where the literacy rate is just over 50 per cent, the spoken word is irreplaceable.
Radio regulars can go far. Woods calls Haiti’s radio culture a “meeting point between a very rural and backwards thing and something extremely contemporary and modern”. What could be more modern than a pop star turned politician? President Michel Martelly joined the presidential race in 2010 with no political experience but with millions of followers from his previous life as a Kompa star – the national music of Haiti which plays on constant rotation.
But radio celebrity can come with its own difficulties. Woods recounts an evening spent drinking with a well-known DJ friend who was trying to pick up a woman at the bar. She showed no signs of interest until he opened his mouth. “People do not know their faces,” says Woods, “but they know their voices very well.”
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