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Published October 27, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 30, 2021 at 3:41 p.m.

People waiting at the water distribution  in southwest Haiti - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • People waiting at the water distribution in southwest Haiti

When he's not shooting for Seven Days, freelance photographer James Buck documents disaster-relief and humanitarian efforts in some of the harshest spots on Earth. Since the end of 2018, he has worked as a volunteer for the nonprofit Project HOPE in Ethiopia, Namibia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Malawi, Indonesia and post-hurricane Bahamas. Earlier this year, the same organization sent him to India to witness and chronicle the ravages of the coronavirus.

But none of those "missions" prepared Buck for Haiti, where he spent almost the entire month of September. The island nation was already reeling from two destabilizing calamities — in July, its president was assassinated; in August came a magnitude 7.2 earthquake. While Buck was there, thousands of beleaguered Haitian refugees amassed at the Texas-Mexico border. The U.S. responded by shipping them home. "They were lucky if they had a backpack and a passport," Buck said.

At the time, Project HOPE had stopped sponsoring volunteers such as Buck; the situation in Haiti was too dangerous, they told him. So Buck flew to Port-au-Prince on his own, arranging transportation and accommodations in a country increasingly controlled by violent gangs. The local government was largely missing in action. With the exception of Doctors Without Borders, very few aid organizations were functioning. Buck found a small one, and "I ended up sort of just pitching in and helping with whatever I could," he said, such as delivering fresh water. After finding a flight to the earthquake zone, he teamed up with a Swedish freelance reporter, illustrating her stories for various newspapers.

James Buck distributing water in southwest Haiti - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • James Buck distributing water in southwest Haiti

"There was such a desperate level of need ... It was fatiguing and sometimes frightening," Buck said. But he said he never felt physically threatened. While he ably captured the destruction and myriad relief efforts, the intimate portraits of the people he encountered suggest he earned their trust. "I was constantly having this argument in my head — and, much of the time, out loud in French — explaining why I do what I do," Buck said. "I'm trying to raise awareness about the situation so that the people who can help, will."

It's not surprising that, when he's back in Vermont, Buck seeks out some of the toughest assignments at Seven Days: photographing the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in Battery Park and the itinerant people who were housed in hotels during the pandemic, as well as illustrating our 2019 "Hooked" series about substance-use disorder.

He brings patience, vulnerability and an empathic eye to communities that might seem impenetrable to a photographer less experienced at documenting those in crisis. "I'm trying to tell people about underreported stories that there's not really another way to get to," Buck said. That is, he hopes to shed light on places and situations we would not see otherwise.

In this week's issue, we're sharing Buck's remarkable images of the homeless encampment at Sears Lane in Burlington; you can read more about the secluded shantytown, and see his photos. In Buck's capable hands, the shoot turned into a photo essay. "I didn't know there was anything like this in Burlington," he told me after investing hours, in the day and at night, getting to know the neighborhood. Nor did most of the rest of us.

Thank you, James.