Picks and Pans Review: Under a Grudging Sun

updated 07/10/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/1989 01:00AM

by Alex Webb

If the history of the world were a novel, the events so strikingly chronicled in the photographs in this book—the brief liberation and brutal resubjugation of Haiti from 1986 to 1988—would seem a foreshadowing of the recent events in China.

Webb, a New York-based photographer affiliated with the Magnum agency, first visited Haiti in 1975, so he had a background for recording the nation's enjoyment of its new freedom from 30 years of oppressive rule when Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was forced to flee in early 1986. The first few of the 59 color photographs, full of a brightly hued sense of possibility, reflect that feeling of relief.

Quickly, however, the country's army asserted itself. By the November 1987 elections, the incipient democracy was a mockery, and the terror had returned. Many of the final pictures show what came to be symbolic of Haiti's brutal notion of politics: bodies lying in the street, often mutilated, ignored by passersby. The bodies were of people who were voting the wrong way—in some cases merely voting was seen to justify murder.

With its 6.4 million people crammed into barely 10,700 square miles, Haiti is the world's most densely populated country and is chronically poor. It has also become, as this book shows so graphically, a nation of anger and fear. (As of this April, there have been five coup attempts, four successful, since February 1986.)

This is, writes Webb in his brief introduction, "a country born out of violence and the wrench of slavery, a legacy of violence it never seems able to escape. History never quite repeats itself in Haiti, but it elaborates on its essential structures." Webb's glimpses of those structures make his book a historical document, even if it is a disheartening one. (Thames and Hudson, paper, $19.95)

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