Interview by Shirine Saad
Why did you choose documentary photography as a medium?
In high school I figured out that photography made the most sense to me. I never chose documentary photography. It was never really my plan. Nor am I sure that I really do that. I liked photographing architecture, mostly, and then after my studies at NYU I started traveling in the Caribbean photographing spiritual places, people’s homes. I loved the culture and atmosphere. It’s much more diverse than people realize and I love how people in third world countries can live in a way that they don’t have as much as we do but yet are much happier than we are. I learn so much from the Caribbean people. With photography I can show you something that exists but that most people don’t see. I can find beauty and a spiritual quality within the ordinary and then within disasters. I can find the best in people. We all photograph what we feel inside us subconsciously. By being open and having a pure heart I find that my camera just find these types of scenes. And maybe I started shooting natural disasters because I had some internal disasters of my own and I admired the resilience of the people who had gone through a natural disaster. I felt that it was my duty to contribute to supporting them in this time of need.
How do you feel about the boundaries between art and documentary photography?
I don’t know where I fit. Does my work go into galleries? I don’t know. Sometimes. It’s in some museums. It’s not news photography. I’m in a new form of photography because it’s truthful, it’s documenting something objectively but at the same time it has an artistic feeling and an insightful, deep quality. They’re not photographs that are meant to be looked at for two minutes and that’s it.
Your images seem intricately composed. How do you work?
I like to take my time. I’m never in a rush. I use two cameras. I travel everywhere with both of them and mostly use a tripod. When I’m not using the tripod I still hold the camera in a way where it’s like a tripod. And so all the images are still very architectural, stable, I like symmetry a lot and I want to create a feeling of peace within the images. I do dark room retouching; contrast, lightening, darkening. I’ve always been attracted to negative space. It makes the viewer breathe and feel peaceful.
How do you create an aesthetic image from pain and disaster?
I generally try not to think. If I just go with the flow and let the subject lead me that’s how I get all my images. For example in the Hurricane Katrina photographs I wanted to get close to my subjects. So a lot of them are just closer up because there’s so much texture in these disasters and I wanted to capture that. Sometimes I want the images to be a little confusing and abstract so that the viewer wants to look at it longer to figure it out and then realize the tragedy that exists within this photograph. The beauty is the icing reeling someone in but then the tragedy is the real cake of it. I want the beauty to allow people to realize the tragedy and my intention is that my photographs will spark someone to want to be involved or to care.
Do you ever feel that you’re a voyeur in these peoples’ lives?
I’ve lived in the Caribbean off and on for 12 years. I feel that the Caribbean is very much part of me. I am the minority as a white guy but I don’t feel out of place. I just felt like this is my extended family. I could never imagine what they’ve been through. Every disaster is like the first time.
How do you make images that last from a fleeting moment?
My images are different than what’s in the media. They’re quiet, peaceful, more emotional. My photographs are usually taken after the events. I photograph a couple of weeks or a month after so it’s a different kind of environment.
What do you mean by spiritual sites?
The sites I photograph have a spirit to them. The spirit exists in the images even when there are no people in them. You feel the people. And that’s the work I do in the natural disasters. Through the varied places it all creates one view. For example in the Trinidad series there’s a photograph of a mosque. Then there’s a photograph of someone’s home. Then there’s a photograph of a catholic church and then a Rasta. These varied images come together to create one feeling of this place. Photography’s a bridge to another world. All my photography is about bringing someone to a place and showing them an ordinary scene that’s very extraordinary.
I’m on the plane returning from my second trip photographing in New Orleans and I feel depressed. Not really sad but more depressed, upset, angry in a way … hurt almost. I’m having flashbacks of desolate, abandoned New Orleans. Day after day of going to a new neighborhood and continually being surprised by the never-ending devastation, by the utter and complete emptiness that has become the norm.
I started having the dreams again last night. My dreams are extremely vivid to the point that when I wake up I feel like I am still in the environment I dream of. The dreams consist of me sleeping on and in the destruction, the debris of people’s lives. It feels almost like I am surrounded by the devastation but more so by death. Not just human death, but something larger that I can’t place my finger on.
When I am in a church or school or home there is a feeling of spirit, the spirits of the people who once inhabited these places. Their souls are still there, surrounding me. Whether they died in the place or not, they are there, through the empty chairs or pictures on the walls I feel them there watching me.
My colleague Alessandro and I followed the truck driver down a tight alleyway to one of the neighborhoods on the ocean. Boys were swimming naked and playing in the tranquil blue sea offshore from the trash-covered beaches. The neighborhood was a maze of rusty galvanized iron walls that formed the exterior of the many homes. The boys screamed “Hey you!” at us like all others we encountered. We learned that it basically translates to: “Give me…” chocolate, food, candy, money, attention, a smile, anything, but in essence… love.
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