A Haitian State of Mind: Paolo Woods’ and Arnaud Robert’s “State”

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The New York Times (Lens) reports on photographer Paolo Woods’ take on Haiti, underlining that his images do not rely on the “visual tropes of misery, grime and violence” that are often shown to depict the country. His work is now on view in the exhibition named “State,” at Photoville in New York and at the Musée de l’Élysée in Lausanne, Switzerland. A book of his photographs, with text by Arnaud Robert, was recently published by the museum and Éditions Photosynthèses. See excerpts with a link to the full article below:

Growing up in Italy as the child of a Dutch mother and a Canadian father, Paolo Woods was fascinated by the notion of the state. How does where you live, and how you live, shape individual and national identity? To find out, he moved to a country most often described as anything but a state: Haiti.

“When you see Haiti in the press, it is almost always described as a failed state,” he said. “How does a failed state live? Who takes the place of the state? How is society organized and how does it reorganize on the corpse of a failed state?”

Mr. Woods, 43, has been exploring those questions since late 2010, based out of Les Cayes in southern Haiti and traveling with the journalist Arnaud Robert for a series of stories dealing with everything from religion to the country’s oligarchs. The result of this collaboration is “State,” an imposing exhibition that just opened at Photoville in New York and at the Musée de l’Élysée in Lausanne, Switzerland. An accompanying book was published by the museum and Éditions Photosynthèses.

Mr. Woods’s images do not rely on the jarring visual tropes of misery, grime and violence employed by the hordes of photojournalists who have descended on Haiti since the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s regime in 1986. Instead, he has found a series of quiet, even ordinary, scenes that add up to a layered portrait of a complicated place. Would-be saviors and so-called experts seem lost and spouting nonsense, while seen-it-all Haitians note the absurdities playing out before them.

“Photojournalists tend to divide the world into good and bad,” Mr. Woods said by phone from Lausanne last week. “You constantly find those two elements that we so clearly think define our vision of the world. But things are a lot more mixed. There are not just bad guys and good guys. That is what is interesting to me, to get into the nuances and make images that are not answers, but raise more questions.”

[. . .] His choice, he acknowledges, was hardly a good one from the perspective of news. Photo editors said they had had their fill of images depicting the ravages of the earthquake and the cholera epidemic that followed. But this forced him to stay away from the typical photo stories that had come out of the island as he and Mr. Robert worked on pieces for a variety of European and American publications. And rather than live in the capital, he moved to Les Cayes to avoid the usual tug of the news cycle. He said that approach allowed him to delve into several topics of great importance that had been overlooked.

For example, while the country’s economic elites have been denounced as corrupt or as profiteers, Mr. Woods and Mr. Robert spent time with them to gain an understanding of how they made their money and whether they were forces for change. The resulting story provoked a strong reaction on the island.

“I have enormous respect for someone who wants to be a businessman in Haiti,” Mr. Woods said. “They can do what so many others did and move to Miami and live a comfortable life. But being an entrepreneur in Haiti is not easy. You have to love your country enormously.”

If anything, he said, one of the biggest challenges to the nation’s economy has come from the very sector that is supposedly there to help: the nongovernmental organizations that have flooded the island over the decades. Apart from inflating prices for cars, food and lodging, he said, these groups have hired away educated locals to work on projects that collapse once the financing ends.

[. . .] One reason he was able to get closer to the country’s real situation, he said, was that he knew his work was being seen not just by Western audiences but by his neighbors, too. Every story he published in the United States or Europe was provided free to the Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste. The local reaction was always stronger, he said, but the knowledge that every word and picture would be scrutinized and debated kept him honest.

Haiti can be what people look for. In his case, Mr. Woods found a home — he will return in October to Les Cayes, where he lives with his partner and son. As he has learned, it is hardly a shallow place. Nor is it a failure.

“Haiti’s basic identity is that it became a state, the first black republic,” he said. “Through every standard we look, it is a failed state. But a failed state means the idea of the state has failed, and that is not the case. The realization has had an enormous amount of trouble, but people keep an enormous amount of faith. Everything that deals with how the state runs concerns Haitians.”

For full article, see http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/a-haitian-state-of-mind/?_r=1&

See book at http://www.instituteartist.com/#book-STATE-Paolo-Woods

One thought on “A Haitian State of Mind: Paolo Woods’ and Arnaud Robert’s “State”

  1. Reblogged this on My Blog and commented:
    “Haiti can be what people look for. In his case, Mr. Woods found a home — he will return in October to Les Cayes, where he lives with his partner and son. As he has learned, it is hardly a shallow place. Nor is it a failure.”

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