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Documenting Haiti's Ruined Grandeur

A view of the collapsed cupola of the National Palace is seen in Port-au-Prince on Aug. 13. The palace, which was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000 people, was supposed to be demolished, but the plans have been put on hold. (Courtesy of Reuters)

Photojournalist Swoan Parker recently toured Haiti's National Palace, which was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. NPR's Laura Sullivan interviewed Parker about her photos of the once-grand building.

Laura Sullivan: It looks like the building is literally falling down on top of you — how dangerous was it to walk around this former palace?

Swoan Parker: Actually, pretty dangerous. I was a little afraid to take more in-depth pictures because of the instability of the structure. Because there are chunks of concrete just dangling from the ceiling, you are wondering if they're just going to come crashing down on you. So you walk as gingerly as possible, and just cross your fingers that nothing's going to happen.

Sullivan: What were some of the most haunting photographs for you?

Parker: Just looking at the cupola, which is now a symbol of the state of the country. But inside that cupola, there's a grand ballroom, so in my mind I was constantly wondering what it was like with some of the events that were there – some of the galas that they hosted — who might have been present.

Sullivan: What is your sense of how people feel about the palace at this moment?

For many people, it stands for Haiti's pride. This is a symbol for many people, so they consider it a great sense of loss.

Sullivan: When you walked through the palace are there any vestiges of the seat of government that it once was?

No, everything has been completely removed. You find the miscellaneous couch, but you don't find anything of significant importance.

Sullivan: Are you planning to shoot the demolition of the National Palace?

Yes, it's anticipated that demolition will begin within the next two weeks, but this is Haiti, so sometimes things are not always set in stone.

Parker wrote about her experience photographing the National Palace on Reuters' photo blog.

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More Photos

A view of the collapsed cupola of the National Palace is seen in Port-au-Prince on Aug. 13. The p...

A view from inside the presidential office — known as the Oval Office.

A ruined staircase is seen in the collapsed National Palace. Parker described it as "a staircase ...

An interior view of the destroyed building.

A wooden sculpture depicting former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide rests against a wall...

A photograph lies amid the rubble.

Destruction is seen on the second floor.

The ballroom at the destroyed National Palace.

A view of an interior courtyard and roof at the National Palace.

Members of the Haitian Color Guard lower the flag in front of the National Palace on Aug. 9.

Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

Tropical Storm Isaac has Republicans scrambling to reorganize portions of their convention for tomorrow, but residents in Haiti are recovering from damage the storm did there yesterday. At least six people are dead after Isaac blew through the southern part of Haiti.

It caused severe flooding in its capital Port-au-Prince. At least 350,000 Haitians still live in makeshift tents after the devastating earthquake there a year and a half ago. That 7.1 quake also ruined Haiti's National Palace, a historic structure roughly twice the size of the White House. The National Palace hasn't been a presidential residence for decades, but it's long been a symbol of Haiti's independence. The palace is scheduled for a complete demolition in the coming weeks.

Photojournalist Swoan Parker recently shot the remains of the National Palace for Reuters news service, and she spoke with us earlier before Isaac hit.

Swoan, welcome to the program.

SWOAN PARKER: Oh, well, thank you for having me.

SULLIVAN: It's so haunting to see in these pictures something that was once this beautiful palace, just an extraordinary place, in such a state of disrepair. What were some of the most haunting photographs for you?

PARKER: I guess just looking at the cupola, which is so evident, and it's now a symbol of this fate of the country. It's a symbol for the catastrophe that happened. But then inside that cupola, there's like a grand ballroom. So in my mind, I was constantly wondering what was it like with some of the events that were there, some of the galas that they hosted, who might have been present - those things.

SULLIVAN: And that cupola is the giant dome that you see on the far side of the palace, and it's tipping over on its side. It looks like it's about to fall over any second now.

PARKER: Yes. Yes.

SULLIVAN: How dangerous was it to walk around this former palace?

PARKER: Actually, pretty dangerous. I was a little afraid to take some more in-depth pictures because of the instability of the structure. So kind of walking as gingerly as possible.

SULLIVAN: When we look at some of these pictures, which I'm looking at right now and our listeners can see at npr.org, there's something so arresting about seeing a staircase without any walls. You don't expect to see a spiral staircase covered in red velvet carpet, you know, without anything around it.

PARKER: No. Typically, you do not, but everything has fallen down away from it. It was a staircase of grandeur. I mean, it wasn't just your regular wooden staircase that you can find in different areas of the palace when I walked through it. It has a carpet on it. So that obviously led to an area where it was highly visible for people to see, and it meant something.

SULLIVAN: What is your sense of how people feel about the palace at this moment?

PARKER: It stands for Haiti's pride. So they consider it a great sense of loss. Their identity, so to speak, is lost for the most part.

SULLIVAN: This palace is now slated to be demolished. Are you planning to shoot the demolition of the National Palace?

PARKER: Yes, that is my intention. I'm just trying to get all the clearances and everything that will be necessary.

SULLIVAN: For you when you close your eyes and you see the palace as you shot it, what is the image that comes to your mind first?

PARKER: I would probably just say Haiti's national flag being lowered. That comes to my mind at first.

SULLIVAN: Swoan Parker is a photojournalist working in Haiti for Reuters. And you can see photos of Haiti's National Palace that Swoan shot before demolition at our website npr.org. Swoan, thank you so much for joining us.

PARKER: Well, thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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