Haiti's Invisible Orders

Paula Kupfer speaks with photographer Paolo Woods about his new work from Haiti, currently on view at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Paolo Woods has just inaugurated an exhibition of his photographs of Haiti at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland. The show is the culmination of a three-year project documenting the institutions that have filled the void left by an absent or dysfunctional government. Photosynthese has published STATE, a book of the work, itself the product of a long collaboration between Woods and Swiss journalist-writer Arnaud Robert. Aperture magazine assistant editor Paula Kupfer speaks with Woods about his experience living and working on this fabled Caribbean island.

Paula Kupfer: Why did you choose to work in Haiti?

Paolo Woods: I got there in November after the January 2010 earthquake. Every photo editor told me, “You’re crazy, we don’t want to see any more images of Haiti; we are saturated.” This was interesting for me; it forced me not to take shortcuts, visually or in terms of content. I hadn’t planned to go for the earthquake; I’m not a news photographer.

The real drama of Haiti is not the earthquake. It’s a terrible event that brought a lot of destruction, but most of Haiti has not changed: the basic problems that existed before still endure. It was a catastrophic “fifteen minutes of fame”: for the people of Haiti, and for those who came to save Haiti. I was obliged, even more, to look at Haiti from a different perspective.

I decided to live there permanently. I worked on a project in Iran a few years ago and wanted to live there but it was not possible. The regime never granted me a long-term visa. So I decided that for my next project I wanted to live where I worked. It also gives you a completely different outlook on things.

PK: Was this your first visit?

PW: I’d been to Haiti before, when I was twenty years old, and it made a very strong impression. At the time, the work by photographers who’d worked in Haiti, such as Alex Webb, made a big impression on me. All the myths about the place contain some truth, but they become so big that they cast a shadow over everything else. And then you’re tempted to go and look only for that. It’s easy for photographers to confirm the visual images they already have in their head.

PK: What were your preconceptions, and how were they confirmed or dispelled? What was most shocking or surprising?

PW: I don’t think you can deny that Haiti is poor, that it is populated by black people, that it has a tradition of Vodou. . . . What I’m trying to investigate and show is that there are other, more interesting aspects—like its unique history—and how they have been perceived. Haiti’s history has scared the world.

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A house made of tarps in Canaan. In the same zone, concrete houses, schools and orphanages are being built as emigration from the capital and the provinces increases. Croix-des-Bouquets. Haiti. © Paolo Woods/INSTITUTE

I’m still very shocked about the role of the American evangelicals there, and their verbal violence. My father was a protestant missionary, so I know this world well. But in Haiti you have a complex and different kind of approach by the evangelicals. It is really neocolonial. There is a complete misunderstanding, the presumption of where the right and wrong is, and the overrunning conviction that they’re right and the locals are wrong and slaves of Satan—it’s infuriating.

On another level, I was surprised that Haiti, a quite macho place, has a very lively gay community. Don’t get me wrong, Haiti is not gay-friendly per se; there has been quite a bit of recent violence against gays. But in general, religion in Haiti allows for some openness: someone who prefers men does so because his personal god or spirit—his Loa—is female, and when the spirit possesses and prefers men—this is accepted. It’s a workaround that allows gay men to be accepted by their family, by society.

PK: For State, the book of this project, you worked with Arnaud Robert, a Swiss journalist that has been working in Haiti for over a decade. Was it your idea from beginning to collaborate with a writer? Did you take inspiration from other historic collaborations, such as Walker Evans and James Agee or John Steinbeck and Robert Capa? How did your photographing and his reporting feed into each other?

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Tent city on a soccer field that belongs to a church. After the earthquake, inhabitants of makeshift districts (Jalousie, seen in the background) sometimes pitched tents in the camps to benefit from NGO help. The most visible camps in public squares were dismantled. Pétion-Ville. © Paolo Woods/INSTITUTE

PW: I’ve been obsessed with the relationship between text and images for a long time. In my previous books, developed with Serge Michel, we questioned how text and images work together in a longer form.

The examples you bring are some of the only ones that exist. I have to think also of Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor. Collaborations between writers and photographers are very common in magazines but not in books. There are nice photo books, and coffee-table books with text that no one reads. Or you have books where a writer does an investigation and calls in stock photos.

I had lot of discussions with Arnaud; we don’t always agree. He had more experience and a lot more context, and we had to confront our thoughts about the place, how it’s organized, and how to put it in perspective.

PK: The book is organized according to key figures or institutions in Haiti, such as “Presidents,” “Owners,” “Whites,” “Substitutes.” Why did you choose this approach?

PW: I worked the structure out with Robert. He had written and investigated abundantly around the issues and institutions I was photographing. We tried to create a structure that would provide insight into how the society is organized. Because your first impression—this is important—is of complete disorder. But the more you work in Haiti, the more you learn that there are orders, invisible orders that structure the society. This is why it hasn’t collapsed, especially when the state, as we understand it, is not operating, or operating deficiently.

PK: “Substitutes” covers the role of NGOs, religious groups, and private companies that have sought to establish a sense of order in Haiti, often with contradictory initiatives and dubious results. One of the series is on the pèpè trade, the sale of second-hand clothing from the U.S. Many of the photos show Haitians wearing colorful T-shirts with ridiculous phrases in English.

PW: From a linguistic point of view, it’s a straightforward, indexical project; it’s one approach to understanding a phenomenon. It says a lot about Haiti, but also the world we live in, when all these Haitians are going around with the most terrible, obnoxious T-shirts, often originally produced in Haitian factories, shipped to the U.S., and sent back as donations. All this is the result of an agreement whereby no taxes are waged on clothes made in Haiti for export to the U.S.

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Pèpè T-shirt, Haiti 2013. © Paolo Woods/INSTITUTE

The pèpè story went viral online some time ago. Many of the comments were making fun of Haitians. This clearly is not my intention. There’s always a view of misery, “the poor Haitians.” I hope viewers will go beyond that.

PK: How do you foresee this being received in a museum setting?

PW: Well, sharing the museum with Sebastiaõ Salgado is interesting; we have a very different approach to the world and I’m curious to see the reactions. A Haitian filmmaker will be making a film about this; he has followed me through Haiti and he will come to the opening in Switzerland, film the opening and people’s reactions, from Swiss bankers to NGO workers. In Haiti he will do the same.

PK: How will this work be shown in Haiti?

PW: As in all my projects, a big part has been bringing it back to where it came from. In the case of the Iran work, a collaboration with Serge [Michel], our big interest was to get the book back to Iranians. Of course, it’s easier to say something about Iran outside of Iran. We got a grant to get a book published in Persian but obviously couldn’t be printed in Iran. So we translated the book into Farsi, we had a PDF and hired someone—our fixer who’d left the country—to put the book on opposition websites, on the Facebook pages of prominent Iranians so people could download it for free. The New York Times correspondent in Iran, Thomas Erdbrink, told me it was one of the most widely read books; it was downloaded thousands of time, and this was one of the biggest satisfactions of the project.

For Haiti, this was also a consideration: up to this point, every Haiti story that we’ve published in foreign media we’ve given for free to the Haitian newspaper The Nouvelliste. We will bring the show to Haiti in 2014, and probably tour it to different locations around the country.

PK: Did you and Arnaud have a definitive mission or objective with this project?

I hope that people will ask themselves questions, that people can see different things in the photographs and understand the situation a bit more. The combination of text and images can be effective: some images inform the text, and sometimes it’s the opposite. It’s a lot more interesting to go through the micro to tell a story about the macro.

Ultimately, what I’m really interested is not a work, a book, or a show on Haiti. It’s a launching pad for a story that is more general, on North-South relationships, how certain forces in our economy work, and—this is probably the most important for me—how identity and state are shaped. I come from a mixed family identity, and I’ve always questioned what makes one person American, another German, and yet another Dutch, and how this shared identity between people enters into a relationship or not. Within a state organization, it’s even more complicated. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share a straight border, one traced by the colonial powers, and it divides two different countries, religions, languages, identities—and is a great vantage point to delve into these issues. I like to start with real stories.

Paula Kupfer is assistant editor of Aperture magazine.

Paolo Woods’s work is currently being featured at Photoville in Brooklyn, New York.

At 7pm today, Friday September 27, Woods will present this project as part of INSTITUTE Tells Stories. On Sunday September 29, Woods will appear in conversation with Fred Ritchin, also part of Photoville 2013.