An Interview with Tim Cothren:
A TV Cameraman in Haiti
February/March 2010

by Ron Steinman

N24, Germany's largest news channel, called cameraman Tim Cothren in New York three days after the January 12 quake and asked him how quickly he could get to Haiti to help cover the earthquake. He had worked for them in Iraq as an embedded cameraman during "Operation Iraqi Freedom" and over the years had also done other work for N24 and its sister channel, SAT.1 TV. He would be in Haiti to relieve a team that had been on the ground since the second day. The German news channel needed him to produce several short news stories per day, edit them, feed them, and do 'live' stand-ups for the morning news shows that were six hours ahead. Once in Port-au-Prince, his workday would be 24 hours long with snatches of sleep as best as possible. Up at midnight, Tim and the team sent hourly updates and intros to the stories throughout the night. But his first job was to get to the Dominican Republic and in his words, "make arrangements for entering Haiti, rendezvous with a reporter flying in from Berlin, and bring supplies to the crew already in Port-au-Prince." Tim and I spoke over the phone and via e-mail.

R.S. -- How did you get into Haiti?

Photo courtesy of Tim Cothren
Tim Cothren with a reporter from German TV's N24 doing a stand-up in front of a collapsed nightclub.
COTHREN -- I had absolutely no idea how I was going to get into Haiti when I landed in the Dominican Republic. I had no contacts, and the office in Berlin did little more than send me Web sites for local bus lines, all of which were then shut down. But Berlin contacted me several times with a growing shopping list of supplies they wanted me to bring, including gasoline, oil and salami. I was pretty stressed, and, with my reporter delayed, I was on my own. The word in the Dominican Republic was that entry to Haiti would only be for 'essential' aid personnel.

It has been said that it is "better to be lucky than to be good." That motto has gotten me through most of my career, so while unloading groceries and supplies I had just picked up, a guy walks past me and I happened to see a helicopter embroidered on his shirt. "Hey! Are you in aviation?" I sputtered, not believing my luck, and sure enough he was there with a company trying to get a fleet of helicopters deployed to assist. I didn't let this guy out of my sight, and he in turn introduced me to a wily Air Rescue operator who said he would be able to get my reporter, all the supplies, and me, including 15 gallons of gas, out the next morning.

We loaded our gear into a funky 20-something-year-old, single-engine Cessna with a pilot so young he looked like he had just started shaving. Then we lifted off westward towards what by all accounts was a total mess.

Photo courtesy of Tim Cothren
Children at an orphanage peek through Tim Cothren's viewfinder.
R.S. -- What were your first impressions as you arrived in Port-au-Prince?

COTHREN --The airport was a chaotic, frantic scene. People lined the perimeter fence as far as the eye could see waving documents, many with children in tow, trying desperately to catch my eye, begging us to get them passage out of their hell.

In town, crushed people lay everywhere. It was Pompeian. People were frozen in their steps going about their daily routine. Women waiting at a bus stop were caught from behind by an office building which bulged outward while falling, clipping them mid-torso. Their faces were frozen in a gruesome pose of anguish and surprise. Men gassing their cars were flattened against them when the station fell. Most bizarre was a hotel that had collapsed on its guests, exposing its contents. A man and a woman were killed mid-coitus, pinned together on a blood-soaked mattress in missionary position.

The smell was incredibly putrid. It was a stinging, nauseating musk of death, dirt, and the reek of human sewage. Everyone who could wore surgical masks. I was glad I had purchased camphor oil to spread inside them.

R.S. -- Had you ever seen anything the likes of Haiti in the past?

COTHREN – I've worked in Haiti twice before, and have seen horrible things including the freshly bullet-riddled body of an anti-Aristide lawyer, mother of three, and someone whom I had spent days filming on a previous trip. But the scale of this destruction went way beyond anything photographs could capture. We traveled 50 miles south towards the epicenter following a caravan of refugees out of the city, just to find their village of Petite Goave in total ruins.

Photo courtesy of Tim Cothren
Following a severe aftershock, some in the media covering Haiti's earthquake preferred to sleep outdoors, alongside a hotel pool.
R.S – Where did you sleep and eat?

COTHREN -- Our German TV team managed to get us into a hotel in Port-au-Prince. CNN had its live position there. It was secure and comfortable. The hotel generator ran a few hours in the morning and at night. My reporter and I had to share a bed, but I felt extremely lucky.

R.S. -- How did the people react to you and your team?

COTHREN -- I was amazed how warm, or at least tolerant, the Haitian people were. Crazy white people with expensive cameras were all over the place clambering for images of their misery, and only once or twice did I get a dirty look. In fact N24 was running an aid program for a German-run orphanage and clinic. We filmed there one morning, and the kids were so adorable, I had to work hard to get shots of them looking forlorn. My reporter was a little unhappy about the selection of shots I had, because every time I turned my camera on a kid or two, they would start doing flips, or some other goofy kid stuff, with big, wide smiles.

R.S. -- How difficult was it to get around Port-au-Prince?

COTHREN -- In situations like this you live or die by your driver. We had an excellent guy named Jacques Joseph. He was a hyperkinetic Haitian who drove like Burt Reynolds and spoke perfect English when he wasn't screaming Creole into his cell phone. He was very resourceful and got us anything we needed. Bulldozers had started clearing the streets immediately so navigating wasn't too bad. But we did get hung up on downed power lines under our car. Within seconds, a dozen people stopped to help manipulate the wires snagged around our muffler to release us.

R.S. -- You experienced a serious aftershock (5.3). What was that like? How did it affect the other journalists around you?

COTHREN -- After a long night of 'live' feed to Berlin, my reporter and I were sound asleep, when at 6 a.m. I became aware of the bed moving. With my back to my reporter I thought he had gotten up, but a second later it felt like he was jumping up and down on the bed. We both shot up to see water glasses slosh around, cell phones skitter across desks, and realized this was a very big aftershock. The room was moving side-to-side, and then turned circular. Screaming and breaking glass could be heard as I ran to my second-floor balcony. Reporters and technicians ran naked towards the pool, shouting in a dozen different languages. The shaking stopped and I ran though the hallway towards the steps, fearing the worst, but the quake had passed. Suddenly a CNN tech asked me for a doctor. Luckily, I had loaned my satellite phone to a newly arrived doctor the night before, so I ran to the conference room where he was staying with his crew and shouted for help. A reporter, fearing for his life, had jumped from his balcony, hitting an air conditioner, peeling back his scalp, and breaking his ankle. A team of doctors was assisting him in moments, and he went back to the States the next day.

Following the aftershock, several reporters and crews never slept indoors again. And more than once our dining room was emptied in seconds as smaller aftershocks continued to keep everyone nervous.

Photo courtesy of Tim Cothren
Tim Cothren hands out surplus snacks to kids in a tent city in Port-au-Prince.
R.S. -- What did you think and feel while shooting and moving about the city?

COTHREN -- Each day we ventured towards areas we had not seen before looking for stories. Each time we came across more anguish and horror. We arrived moments before a French recovery crew told the mother of a 6-year-old boy they could not get any deeper into the wreckage and were moving on. The young woman went into a trance of grief. Up the block, what used to be a French-language academy was being probed by a backhoe and an auditorium containing nearly 400 students was uncovered. Staff members stood in the street clutching photographs of the school and colleagues, weeping as limp, tattered bodies were removed by the dozens and placed in white zippered body bags. I have no idea where they were taking all the dead. But we did stop by the ruined hotel to see if the unlucky couple had been removed. We found that they, like so many bodies that were not removable because they were hopelessly pinned, were doused with gas and set ablaze, cremated in place.

R.S. -- You said you helped distribute food because you did not want to feel like a "Video Vulture." Explain.

COTHREN -- Being able to pull myself out of this ocean of misery and back into the comfortable confines of my hotel played on my mind. I know it is my job to 'get the story,' graphic and true. But sitting poolside with a cold beer at 6 p.m. every evening was really surreal so I began to feel like a 'Video Vulture.' Aside from promising myself I would contribute a portion of my earnings to a good charity, I wanted to help firsthand, even if a little. We had brought along about 40 pounds of various power bars and snacks. I was able to feel a bit like Santa Claus when Joseph and I went for a drive, and I tried to quietly slip a few bars to cute kids and old people. The distribution went pretty well; when one girl got bullied out of hers, I was able to pull her aside and give her a handful more. Her smile was something I can't forget.

The biggest small but positive impact we made as a team was surprising our driver Jacques with the gift of our brand new Honda generator. He couldn't believe his eyes. As he hugged my reporter and looked at me over his shoulder, I think I saw the happiest man on earth. He will now be able to supply and sell power to his neighbors, powering phones and car batteries. His entrepreneurial spirit was soaring. It seemed typically Haitian to me. My impression was that all the journalists covering the story felt the same way.

R.S. – Tell me about the food distribution story you shot.

COTHREN -- While the general demeanor of the people we met and filmed was extremely generous and pleasant, things can change quickly when food is involved. While driving into a hillside suburb, we noticed a crowd growing. We got out to investigate and realized that a food supply truck had overheated and was broken down blocks from the planned distribution point. With every moment the truck sat there, word spread and soon the vehicle and its contents looked like a dead whale floating in a sea of very hungry sharks. U.N. forces were scarce, and it looked like pandemonium was going to erupt. I climbed on top of a U.N. vehicle for a better shot, but I also felt a lot more secure up there. My vehicle moved slowly forward through the crowd. The shot I got was the parting of a sea of humanity. Suddenly, the driver of the food truck started the motor, but when he released the brake the whole panel truck lurched backward on the steep hill. People panicked and a scream went up. I thought this was the end. Amazingly the truck stopped before crushing anyone under its wheels. My vehicle became a barrier between the people and the food. More U.N. troops arrived, each from a different country, speaking different languages. Eventually, with a few more vehicles they formed something of a funnel where they let people through in small groups, handing them some rations, and sending them on their way. The disaster was diverted, and we got a story with tension, but ultimately a peaceful ending.

Tim Cothren is a freelance cameraman and producer living in New York and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He has shot for ABC News, "Nightline," GMA, HBO, BBC, "60 Minutes," and Discovery, and he works on documentaries as well. He is one of the premier underwater cameramen. His Web site is:

To revisit Tim's excellent Digital Journalist article on diving with wounded soldiers, from the May 2009 issue, click on the following link:

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks on SCRIBD.

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