Interview by Marina Cashdan for The Huffington Post
In 2003, The Miami Herald published a magazine supplement of Bruce Weber’s extraordinary photographs of Miami’s Haitian community, a style of street photography that evoked the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 2010 Weber exhibited another exhibition which put a human face on the consequences of the United States’ immigration policy at that time, a policy that resulted in the incarceration of Haitians who had fled their country for a better life. Weber felt compelled to tell the story of the struggle of Haitian immigrants and immersed himself in the Haitian community, a struggle that continued with even greater difficulty as the community dealt with the devastating aftermath of the tragic January 2010 earthquake.
Marina Cashdan: Can you talk about the Haitian community in Miami, what (or who) brought you there, and what made you start to take photographs?
Bruce Weber: A lot of these pictures were taken in Little Haiti, a small community in Miami. Even though it’s small, it’s very vibrant and filled with people who have an incredible history and involvement in the city. By that I mean that they’re very active in the church, in the schools, in the cultural aspects, art, theater, and everything that happens in Miami. So they’re really involved even though they’re from a small community. I happened to go there when I saw a film by Jonathan Demme called The Agronomist…
… about Haitian journalist Jean Dominique [founder of Haiti’s only free radio station, who was assassinated in 2000]…
Yeah, I saw this movie at the film festival a couple of years ago, and [the director] Jonathan Demme spoke, and afterward I asked him, ‘What can I do?’ And he said, ‘Well take your camera and go to where a lot of these people are imprisoned and separated from their families. Through pictures and texts, you can let people know that in their own backyard, here in Miami, this is happening.’ I was really shocked and outraged just because I couldn’t even imagine this happening in America, let alone where I live. So I ended up going to some of the prisons and met a lot of people who came over [to the US from Haiti] and were separated from their mother or father, or parents separated from their children. And then I went to a church and the Father there announced that we were there working on a piece for the Miami Herald and it just kind of grew from that. And through that early work I discovered and really got to know an amazing group of people.
And were people automatically comfortable with the camera, I mean, were people open from the get-go, or did it take quite a bit of time for them to get comfortable with you?
Well, we had a friend of ours Marleine Bastien who recently ran for Congress. She’s quite well known in the community and so she was with us a lot at the beginning, and I really feel that because of that they trusted us a little more. You know the Haitian people are treated so badly all over the world that there is no reason for them to trust us at all. But somehow they did and they were very open. That trust they gave us was so fragile and so heartwarming that we just felt like it pushed us onto the next subject, and the next subject, and the next.
Have you been down to Haiti since the earthquake in January?
BW: I went to Haiti a long time ago. I haven’t gone since the earthquake. I was going to go about a year ago to visit a friend of mine, Paul Farmer, co-founder of [the organization] Partners in Health. He has a clinic up in the mountains. And at the time when I was going, he said, ‘Don’t come, this is too dangerous.’ And then the earthquake happened. And I was so involved in the community in Miami and the people that came over after the earthquake that I just didn’t want to lose that.
After the earthquake, you must have been concerned about whether these people that you had been documenting had family still there. I can imagine that you developed a relationship with them outside of photographing them?
Well, with some of them yes. I mean some of them I would see in church. I went to church a lot for a Jewish boy [chuckles] and it was very interesting because I would see people who I photographed a year ago or just a couple of weeks ago. And conversely I got to see people on the streets that I met in church or I’ve gone to their homes to photograph them. They were really involved. I also got to become good friends with lot of the men and women from the Catholic charities who act as pro-bono lawyers for a lot of the Haitian people. Their stories were very compelling and really helped us find people to photograph. And sometimes you felt like you were in a novel or something, like you were mysteriously placed and you never knew how you got there, you know what I mean?
I wonder if there’s some sort of common denominator in all of the photographs, whether they’re street photography, or documentary photography, or things that are set in the studio that are quite highly set up. From your perspective, what’s the common denominator in all of your photographs?
Well you know, photography is kind of a hard thing to talk about in that way, at least for me, because almost everyday I’m doing something different. I like to start out each day from the beginning. I’m always learning things. If I had to say one thing, it’s to have an experience and learn something, which I hope comes through in all of my pictures.
And you shoot all of your photographs on film [as opposed to digital]?
Yeah I’m old school, sorry (laughs).
No apologies needed. I appreciate that you still use film. In fact my husband is a photographer and he prefers to shoot on film. He says that it’s a very different process from digital — that you have to be more thoughtful when shooting on film because you go at a slower pace whereas digital is so fast.
Well, I think so. The actress Jessica Lange takes really great photographs, and Jessica and I were talking about [shooting on film] and she said something really great, she said, ‘You know, the great thing about using film is it can be a more intimate experience.’ It’s just because you’re maybe not shooting as fast … It’s also easier to mess up, which is good, because then you can have a mistake which surprises you and maybe makes you think about something else.
Can you tell me a littler bit about your relationship to Miami, when you first started living there, what drew you to the city, and things that, for instance, someone like me who really only goes to Miami once or twice a year maybe, might not know about the city?
I have this conversation with a lot of people and they always ask me that question, and I tell them that for me, Miami is really not South Beach. Miami is the communities: the Cuban community, the Haitian community, the Puerto Rican community — the very international feeling of these communities. It was this that attracted me to Miami, aside from the ocean and the parks. And I like that it’s still one of the few places in America that has that exotic-ness about it, where you can go to let’s say the Dominican section of the city where and old man and kids are playing baseball. Or if you go to the Puerto Rican section, it’s a whole different scene. And there are so many big athletes who went to school around these areas who have done well in the Olympics and so on. So, I kind of like what these communities contribute to the city as a whole. That was really my first feeling about Miami. I liked that it was different. I liked that when I first went down there, even in South Beach, you’d see elderly people with skateboards and the eclectic mixture. It’s a little hard to find that now [in South Beach], so that’s why I go to these other communities, and go to their restaurants and stores…
How long have you been living in Miami?
I’ve been living there for 12 years.
This exhibition ran from The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), North Miami from November 18, 2010 to February 13, 2011.