Tent Life: Haiti

Wyatt Gallery
Umbrage Editions, 2011

Review by Ellen Rennard

Issue 29

After photographing in Sri Lanka in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, and then in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, Wyatt Gallery felt “an urgent, powerful calling to help Haiti” following the earthquake of January, 2010. His book, Tent Life: Haiti (Umbrage Editions, April 2011) includes 74 color photographs of life in the tent cities that sprouted after this disaster. All of the royalties from the sales of this book go to Haitian relief organizations, and Gallery hopes his work can do something to help the Haitian people. There are inherent complexities, of course, in such photographic encounters: the barriers of race and class, the potential for paternalistic or colonial attitudes, and so forth. Regardless of good intentions, the important questions are, who benefits, and at what costs?

Many of the tent camps have been disbanded since the book’s publication, so that while some 375,000 people remain displaced, there are only about 66,000 still living in the camps, compared to the 895,000 now thought to have occupied these temporary shelters initially. Of course, that is still far too many people without decent housing. (For point of comparison, in America homelessness affects roughly 650,000 people, about half of whom live in shelters of some sort.) It is also possible to consider these problematic living conditions in the larger context of global poverty, food shortages, environmental devastation, exploitation, and other crises. However, it seems to me that the best approach to a book like this one is to take a leap of faith and accept that it represents a worthy cause. The alternative – to look the other way – does not serve.

The book begins with an essay by Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat who tells the story of her second cousin, Jesula, who lived for a time in the tent city across from the destroyed National Palace. Inside Jesula’s tent were family pictures and a small overnight bag on which she had placed a lock—“as if one could not easily walk away with the whole thing.” This detail underscores the challenge of establishing any semblance of a safe home in such places. Similarly, Gallery’s photograph of, for example, “Julie Studio Beauté” (a tidy beauty salon in a blue, tarp-covered shack), shows us the strong effort to restore ordinary life even in circumstances of extraordinary difficulty.

Gallery’s photographs include environmental portraits in and around the tent cities, views of the camps themselves, heaps of garbage, ruined buildings, and interiors of tents. I confess I did not feel any real sense of connection to the subjects who remain, it seems, at an emotional distance. The interactions sometimes felt hurried; the subjects, posed. It is perhaps revealing that for one of the book’s most beautiful photographs, the ruined Cathedral of the Lady of the Assumption, Gallery’s caption reads, “I took my time photographing the interior. . .” Yet presumably there was a sense of urgency in bringing this work to the public eye in order to gain support for Haiti’s immediate needs.

As a whole, the book seems to be designed so that the viewer can easily flip back and forth in order to choose what to look at or what to read. The compositions are skillful, and the tarps cast vivid hues of red, blue, orange, and yellow that convey a strong sense of vitality. This vibrancy is echoed in the Creole poem by Emmauel Ejen that begins the book: “You can cut me off / uproot me, toss me away / you can roll me, / burn me to cinders / but birds won’t quit / nesting in my roots and / hope doesn’t wither / but instead blossoms in me.”

The portraits – taken in tents and shacks, in a makeshift “tent photo booth,” and outdoors – convey less of despair and more of hope. In one photograph, a family gathers beneath clothes hung from the rafters like brightly colored flags; in another, one of my favorites, an elderly woman in a flowered dress waits for water in front of walls painted in hues of yellow, turquoise, and red (though the significance of the swastika in the upper right corner of the wall is unexplained). For the viewer, at least, the hardships suffered by these people are mitigated by the way they are portrayed – a way that allows us to see their beauty and dignity. Their sadness is not absent but is overshadowed by elements such as the closing image of a smiling girl wearing a pristine white dress. The harshness of poverty and the chaos of the situation are visible mainly in piles of trash, devastated buildings, ubiquitous water buckets, and dirt floors. Gallery’s book reminds us of our common humanity and suggests that much remains to be done to bring adequate housing, education, and government to the people of Haiti.

Ellen Rennard is a Groton, Massachusetts, based photographer and teacher.
To view some of Ellen's photography, please visit her website.

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