Vlad Sokhin. Restavèks

Touché par le témoignage de Jean-Robert Cader dans son ouvrage Restavèk, enfant-esclave à Haïti. Une autobiographie (paru en juin 2012), le photographe Vlad Sokhin décide en 2012 de se rendre dans la capitale haïtienne pour "voir de ses propres yeux si cette forme d'esclavage existe toujours." Il y rencontre Judeline, Faustin ou Etienne, des "restavèks" (en créole haïtien, dérivé du français "reste avec") qui travaillent pour des familles "d'adoption" en échange d'un toit et de la nourriture. Leur quotidien fait l'objet d'une exposition présentée dans le cadre du festival Visa pour l'Image. (Interview en anglais.) 

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Judeline (12), swept the floor while her host checked messages on a cellphone. Some women in Haiti ask their husbands to find restive children to do the household chores. © Vlad Sokhin / Focus / Cosmos

Vlad Sokhin : Documenting Restavek children in Haiti

In 2012, Vlad Sokhin spent several months in Haiti covering the life of Restavek children (from the French "rest avec", or "stay with"). Given away by their parents to richer families, "restavek children become slaves, working in the homes of their owners from early morning till night," says the photographer. His work will be presented during the Visa pour l'Image festival in Perpignan.

Vlad Sokhin is a Russian/Portuguese documentary based in Sydney, Australia. His work has focused on human rights issues, including violence against women and children, police brutality, or life of LGBT communities in the Pacific area. He is represented by German "Agentur Focus" and "Grinber Photos". He regularly colaborates with the United Nations Human Rights, UNICEF, Amnesty International, Child Fund Australia and other NGO's.

Photographie.com : How did you first learn about the Restavek children ?

A few years ago, I read an autobiography book called Restavek. Jean R. Cadet, its author, was a former Restavek himself, but he managed to escape and go to the United States. I was very much inspired by this book and wanted to see with my own eyes whether this form of slavery still existed. I found out that this was a widespread phenomenon in Haiti, and that not many photographers had covered it. So I decided to go to Haiti and do my own documentary on child slavery. No one commissioned this work ; I've sent the story proposal to several publications, but none of the editors replied to me. You might know that it's not very easy to get assignments nowadays, especially if you are an emerging photographer. So I self-financed my first trip to Haiti. I contacted the Restavek Freedom Foundation and offered my help in promoting their work in exchange to access to the Restavek children. Our collaboration was a success, so during my second trip to Haiti they were more than happy to offer their help again.

Photographie.com : What did you witness in Haiti ?

Before coming to Haiti, I knew these kids were leading a miserable life. But when you actually see it, it's different. You want to do something to help these kids, you want to take them away from their "families", but you can't. So you're just following them around, pressing the button, and hiding behind your camera. And you see those kids working, and there is no hope in their eyes. They wake up at 5 o'clock every morning to fetch dozens of litres of water, clean the house, cook food, do the dishes, do laundry, fetch water again and cook dinner and wash the dishes again. They sleep on the floor, while the rest of the family sleeps on beds ;  they usually do not eat the same food as their "masters" and sometimes can't use the same bathroom as the rest of the family. And the most surprising thing of all : most families don't mind that some foreign photographer comes to photograph them as they mistreat those children. Some "owners" actually say they are proud to "help" these children.

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Etienne (11), lives with Ivene (32), a grocery and liquor store owner in Cité Soleil slum of Port-au-Prince. Etienne works long hours in the shop and, like many restaveks, is subject to abuse. © Vlad Sokhin / Focus / Cosmos

Photographie.com : Do only rich families have Restavek children ?

The poorest place in Port-au-Prince and Haiti is Cité Soleil, a slum ruled by local gangs. One of the boys I met here, Faustin, was given up  by his drug-addicted father in exchange for a dose of heroin. The new "family" beats the boy every day, and often leaves him go hungry. So every evening, once he has finished his house chores, he goes to the sea to catch fish, which he eats and exchanges for clothes. Another boy I met, Etienne, lives as a slave with a grocery and liquor store owner and works in the shop from early morning until night. While I was taking his picture, his "master" came close to the boy and put his cigarette in Etienne's mouth. I felt that the "owner" had started abusing the boy because of me being there, so I put down my camera and asked my translator to tell the man to stop doing it. Locals later told me that Etienne was abused avery day by the shop owner.

The Restavek phenomenon is widespread in the country. Poor families have slave children. Rich family have slave children too. Shop owners, businessmen, street vendors and even some church leaders have child slaves in their houses. One day, I attended a workshop for host families organized by the Restavek Freedom Foundation. Before the workshop started, all Restavek "owners" started to pray. I was taking photos of the prayer and was wondering how they could call themselves religious persons, when children were working for them. As I already said, most of them think that they are actually doing those children a favor, providing them shelter and food in exchange for labour.

Why Restaveks still exist is a big riddle for me. Haiti was the first country in the world to gain independence after the successful slave revolution. And what are people doing now ? They are using their own kids as slaves. 

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One of the members of the host-family abuses a restive boy Enso (10) for not properly done work in the house. © Vlad Sokhin / Focus / Cosmos

Photographie.com : What was your relationship with the Restavek children ? What happens to them when they grow old ?

I became friends with some children such as Judeline and Enso, who's houses I've visited more than once. Most kids basically want the same thing : to go to school and later find a good job. The children who's parents are alive wanted to go back to their families, but only few knew where they lived. Some of the children I've met were given up by their parents when they were young, so they don't know the name of their home village, and they have no contact with their parents.

When they grow old, many of the girls become sexual workers. Other girls continue serving people as paid maids. Most of the former Restaveks cannot read or write, which prevents them from having a decent job. Only a few of them are able to attend literacy programs for adults or professional classes with the help of NGOs. But most of the kids simply disappear on the streets.

Photographie.com : You have been able to speak to parents and owners. What did they say ?

Parents say that if they do not give their children as Restaveks, those children would die from starvation. They hope that the new "families" can offer them better living conditions and the opportunity go to school. But in practice, those kids don't go to school, unless NGOs pay for their education.

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Kids fetch water from the public water pump in the tent camp of Pois Congo slum in Port-au-Prince. © Vlad Sokhin / Focus / Cosmos

Photographie.com : The Restavek Freedom Foundation is such an NGO.

Restavek Freedom Foundation is not only working with Restavek children, but they are also trying to influence cultural and social change in Haiti. Because the Restavek system has been culturally accepted by the society, the NGO is trying to raise awareness on this practice's emotional impact on children and on the country as a whole. They are trying to convince host families to let their Restavek children go to school and pay for the kids' education, and also change their attitude towards slave children. The music competitions they are organizing is one of their biggest initiative. The contestants are required to write original lyrics about Restaveks ; thousands of people have entered the competition and the entire country is talking about this.

Photographie.com : Your story was the subject of a small controversy in May, when The New York Times Lens Blog posted and then removed an article called The Ultimate Have-Nots in a Society of Have-Nots. Editors for The Times claimed that one of your subjects, Lesli Zoe Petit-Phar, had also worked as your fixer. They felt that this "business relationship" had "compromised the credibility" of your photos. How do you feel about that ?

I've already publicly explained my position on this issue and don't want to come back to all this again. All I can say is that I have written confirmation from people who know Mr. Petit-Phar, saying that his family does have a Restavek child called Judeline. The fact that the girl is a Restavek was also confirmed by the Restavek Freedom Foundation. As for the New York Times : I'm not their photographer, they haven't commissioned my work on this project. I would reply to them with the word's of W. Eugene Smith, who's interview they published earlier this year : "I didn't write the rules, why should I follow them ?"

Photographie.com : What does the Perpignan exhibition mean to you ?

It is a big achievement for me to be exhibited in one of the biggest photojournalism festivals in the world, along with many other great photographers. I hope that this exhibition will raise more awareness on the Restavek issue : those kids need more media attention.

Photographie.com : What is next for you ?

After the festival I'll go back to Papua New Guinea, where for the last two years I've been working on a documentary project on violence against women and witch burning. I'll be soon moving back to Europe from Australia.

Interview by Roxana Traista


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 Ambeline (7, on the right), with her three month old  brother Loubes. Their mother Adeline (32, on the left) cannot afford to feed her three kids and pay for Amberline's school education. Adeline states that in a few months she is going to give Amberline away to another family as a restive. © Vlad Sokhin / Focus / Cosmos

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Viviane (12, left) helps her sister Islande (13) to clean dishes in their host family's house. The sisters have lived in servitude since 2008, when their mother gave them away. © Vlad Sokhin / Focus / Cosmos