The photographs we see from Haiti usually evoke misery – especially after the country’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake. But anyone who has been to Haiti, of course, knows that’s hardly the whole picture.
Which is why a new and unprecedented photo exhibit that just opened at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale is one of this year’s most important in South Florida. “From Within and Without: The History of Haitian Photography,” could go a long way toward broadening – and brightening – our vision of Haiti.
Noted Haitian-American artist Edouard Duval-Carrié guest-curated the show, and I sat down with him to talk about its potential impact.
You’re a celebrated painter. So how did you get so involved in promoting photography? What was the genesis of all this?
I was born in Haiti and left under the Duvalier regime because of the situation there. And since then I was very, very much involved with the history of Haiti, the whole complexity of Haiti’s position vis-à-vis the world. Being here I’ve realized also that the proximity of South Florida to the Caribbean and to Haiti makes it very crucial that people realize and understand the complexity of that nation.
And so photography, then, was one of the crucial avenues into that?
Absolutely. With the advent of photography, it was immediately used in Haiti. And it was interesting to me to try to put images to that whole history. To see how we see ourselves and how we are seen from the exterior.
This is believed to be the first historical survey of Haitian photography ever presented in a museum. And the more than 300 photographs span two centuries. How difficult was it to find them?
It was quite complicated. Archives in Haiti are very scant. But we’ve managed to go deeply into – especially into the 19th century, with a particular collection that has been amassed in Canada by a Haitian national.
[But] the show encompasses much more than the 19th century. I mean, it goes into the [1915-34] U.S. occupation of Haiti, which was quite important, [more than] 15 years, and left the United States and Haiti quite traumatized.
What do you hope these photos will convey about Haiti to a public that is so accustomed to viewing only tragic images of the place?
Well, it certainly will complicate the vision of Haiti and will probably humanize it. For example, in the 19th century, the earliest photograph found [was] the coronation album of our first emperor – no, our second emperor. [Laughs] Mr. Faustin Soulouque, who does not have a wonderful reputation. But he hired a couple of photographers to create a coronation album.
I want to point out two photos. One is a gorgeous black-and-white portrait of a woman in a turban by French-Haitian photographer Chantal Regnault. It struck me because of its soft beauty, which cameras just don’t capture enough of in Haiti.
Another is a photo of Haitians voting, by the Miami Herald’s Carl Juste, who was born in Haiti. It projects the political chaos we so often associate with Haiti, but the tone feels hopeful.
Chantal Regnault has been going to Haiti for the last 20 or 30 years and has been very interested in religion, and particularly vodou. She tries to humanize the face of that religion, which has been much maligned.
And Carl Juste, I mean, the fact that he [is] Haitian, he always tried to complicate and humanize the vision of Haitians – and their [willingness] to participate in the democratic process, which has been, you know, a problem since the beginning of the existence of that nation.
The show’s timing also seems strong, given the current controversy over the Dominican Republic’s treatment of Haitians in that country. In that regard, could this exhibit be an opportunity for art to lend a voice during a humanitarian crisis?
I certainly hope so. It will become quite an issue if it continues.
If we see the mass deportations, for example.
“From Within and Without: The History of Haitian Photography,” opened June 21 and runs through October 4 at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 East Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale.
Tim Padgett is WLRN’s Americas editor you can read more of his coverage here.