Lhe first time the world saw Mirard Joseph was one of the worst days of his life,” says Paul Ratje, the photographer who immortalized him. On September 19, 2021, Joseph embodied the drama of thousands of Haitians when he tried to escape from the United States Border Patrol, in the town of Del Río, Texas.
The photo, viralized under evocations of the times of slavery and comments on the survival of racism in American institutions, gave the photographer international recognition that prompted him to delve into history until he located Joseph in Haiti, his homeland, to where he was deported from the United States. He met him in Port-au-Prince, where he lives in a house with other families, and now tells his story.
Joseph, with his wife and 2-year-old daughter (he has five other children), survived along with 15,000 other immigrants – most of them Haitians – in makeshift tents under the border bridge that separates Del Río from the Mexican town of Ciudad Acuña. . His baby had gastroenteritis and the only help they received was bread and bottled water.
On the day the photo was taken, Joseph had crossed to the Mexican side of the border to buy food. He was trying to return when the agents stopped him. As he ran, clutching plastic bags filled with food, the border agent tore off his shirt. The horse’s reins seemed to wrap around his back like a whip. “That brought back memories of when I lived in fear of violence in Haiti. It was as if the agent had something personal against me », he recalls.
Chained by the wrists, the waist and the feet, Joseph was put on a plane days later along with his wife, Madeleine Prospere, also handcuffed, although with their daughter in her arms, heading for Haiti. They were part of the more than 18,000 Haitians repatriated from the United States between September 19 and February 26, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). When Joseph and his Prospere landed in Port-au-Prince, friends and family showed them the photograph, now a global image. “I cried. It is the worst humiliation I have ever suffered. The humiliation of the horse and the fists », he recalls.
If he is recognized on the street, Joseph denies being “the man in the photograph” and avoids discussing it with any stranger.
All of this happened in September. Between the tents of the improvised immigrant camp, the photojournalist Paul Ratje then searched for several days for the protagonist of his image. He didn’t find it, but he left his card with a few Haitians. Three months later, in December, his phone rang. In broken Spanish, a man told her that he wanted to introduce her to someone. He spoke with a Haitian accent. He was Mirard Joseph.
Joseph and ten other Haitian immigrants had just filed a lawsuit against the US government, claiming they were trafficked illegally by being denied the opportunity to seek asylum in Del Rio. Joseph, according to his lawyers, felt insecure in Chile, where he lived for two years after leaving Haiti and where his daughter was born, and feared being kidnapped if he returned to his country. Joseph also added that a border agent “beat” him.
In December and January, Ratje traveled twice to the Haitian capital. In his first interview since his photo was taken, Joseph took the opportunity to tell his story on his own terms. Raised in Saint-Louis du Nord, a small coastal town in the north of the country, he says that he has spent his life haunted by poverty and violence. He grew up in the streets playing football, his great passion, developing a strong madridista feeling as a child. At 42 years old, in fact, he tries not to miss Real Madrid games. Nor those of the Los Angeles Lakers, also the object of his sporting fervor.
Like millions of his countrymen, Joseph has spent his life trying to get ahead. Poverty, he says, has worsened since his land was devastated in 2010 by an earthquake that left thousands homeless and hungry, sparking cholera outbreaks and a devastating increase in violence.
“That brought back memories of when I lived in fear of violence in Haiti. It was as if the agent had something personal against me»
Last July, moreover, President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, plunging the nation into political uncertainty; a month later, another great earthquake accentuated all the national ills. Circumstances that promoted “one of the largest migratory flows in the Western Hemisphere,” in the words of the Migration Policy Institute.
Nearly 650,000 Haitians have left their homes in recent years. Many have landed in Latin American countries such as Brazil or Chile. Joseph and Prospere arrived in the latter in 2017, where he found work in a propeller factory and his daughter was born. The pandemic, however, took its toll on the labor market and, in particular, on immigrants. Attracted by rumors about greater flexibility by the new president Joe Biden on immigration matters, thousands of them left for the great neighbor to the north.
With their baby in tow, Joseph and Prospere crossed the continent on an odyssey that took them through mountains, precarious shelters and treacherous jungles such as the Darién Gap, the border mark between Panama and Colombia where dozens of immigrants lose their lives each year, according to the IOM. Reaching the US border, Joseph and his wife crossed the border but could not get past Del Rio, settling on cardboard on the dusty ground under the bridge where his daughter developed respiratory and gastrointestinal illness. Until the day came when Paul Ratje took the famous snapshot of him.
Becoming an accidental celebrity has not been easy. If he is recognized on the street, for example, he denies being “the man in the photo” just to avoid any conversation on the subject with a stranger. When he met Ratje in his own country, however, Joseph dressed in his best clothes. He wanted to be portrayed this time in possession of his dignity, not as if he were a criminal.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.