They perform an essential health service—in secret

The bayakou of Port-au-Prince offer a solution to poor sanitation, yet few know what they do.

This is Exilien Cenat. He is a bayakou, the Haitian term for laborers who empty latrines. I took his photo while he was cleaning out a pit toilet that served several families in Port-au-Prince. Despite the unpleasantness of his job, Exilien represents a solution—a crude one—to the deadly problem of poor sanitation.

I’d been assigned to photograph a National Geographic story on open defecation, a subject that didn’t disturb me too much. I’ve covered wars and conflicts in places where sanitation is not a priority. The difficulty, I thought, would lie in making visually interesting images out of such a banal subject—something so universal that everybody does it.

But following people to the bathroom, or wherever they go, is surprisingly tough. People can’t even talk about this most basic of human actions, let alone discuss it in a way that brings positive change to their communities. Yet without proper sanitation, you can’t have clean water.

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