In May 2000, the United States Coast Guards rescued a sinking boat en route to Florida. To their surprise, on the boat, they found two journalists along with 44 Haitians attempting to enter the United States. Mike Finkel, a writer, and Chris Anderson, a photographer, were on assignment for The New York Times Magazine to document the illegal immigration across the 600 miles of treacherous waters that separate the richest country in the Western Hemisphere from its poorest.
In Haiti, Finkel and Anderson were treated with suspicion by smugglers, fearing that they were working undercover for the CIA, but they eventually braved the crossing, recounted with gusto in a later New York Times Magazine article by Finkel. Finkel carried a homing rescue device for emergencies, but both the reporter and the photographer were reluctant to use it, even when the boat was slowly sinking, and the passengers were out of food and water. They had been tricked by the smugglers into believing that the 10-day journey would be a third of its length. In Magnum Contact Sheets, Anderson remembers the slow sinking of that 23-foot homemade boat expectantly named, “Believe in God”:
Up to that point, I had not taken many pictures. Everyone on the boat knew I was a photographer, but it somehow had not felt right. It’s difficult to explain. But as the boat sank, David, the Haitian whom I had followed on this journey, said to me, ‘Chris, you’d better start making pictures. We only have an hour to live.’ And so, without much thought, I began making pictures.
We were saved at the last moment by a US coast guard cutter that happened upon us, but that’s another story. Much later on, back home safe, I reflected on this question: why make pictures that no one will ever see? The only explanation for me was that the act of photographing had more to do with the explaining of the world to myself than explaining something to someone else. The pictures were about communicating something about my experience, not about reporting literal information. This would be the single most transformative moment of my photographic life.