By JENNIFER KAY
FORT LAUDERDALE — When photography was new, wealthy Haitians posed for the camera in fine clothes and formal parlors, as at home in the world’s capitals as aany of their European or American peers.
But over the following century, that cosmopolitan image faded as foreigners focused on Haiti’s poverty and political dysfunction. What emerged remains the predominant representation of Haiti in photographs today: the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.
The tension between Haiti’s image abroad and the work of Haitians turning the cameras on themselves is the subject of From Within and Without: The History of Haitian Photography” at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale.
The exhibit, running through Oct. 4, was compiled from 19th century family photos, albums collected by American troops that occupied Haiti, photojournalism by Haitians and Haitian-Americans, and fine-art images by artists of Haitian descent worldwide.
Curator Edouard Duval-Carrie, a Miami-based Haitian-American contemporary artist, said the exhibit is rooted in many Haitians’ suspicion of cameras.
“Haitians, they don’t want to be photographed,” he said. “ … ‘No, no, no, no, they’re taking my spirit, and then we don’t like the way we’re being portrayed in the press.’ ”
He added: “What I wanted to do was humanize and complicate the vision of Haiti, because it’s too simplified.”
The exhibit fills in Haiti’s history between the slave revolt that ended with Haiti’s independence in 1804 and modern news images that have documented the country’s political and natural disasters since the 1980s.
Daguerreotypes produced for Haitian Emperor Faustin Soulouque in the mid-1800s and formal family portraits from the 1890s present an image of grandeur and respectability, though the nuances of race and class in the Caribbean country get lost in the black-and-white images.
Albums compiled by American troops occupying Haiti from 1915 to 1934 introduce images of Haitian peasants, along with aerial landscapes that assessed the country’s resources at the time.
Displayed alongside ordinary snapshots of middle-class children and birthday cakes, the collected images illustrate how photography has been used to manipulate Haiti’s image by its elite, its masses and various military forces. Though many images are over a century old, they are timely additions to current conversations about Haiti’s identity amid its struggles to recover from a 2010 earthquake and tensions over the deportations of migrants from the neighboring Dominican Republic, said the museum’s director and chief curator, Bonnie Clearwater.
“One photograph by one photographer is never going to tell the whole story, and even with 350 photographs we can’t possibly tell the full story. We know this is the beginning,” she said.
The exhibit also compares photojournalism by Haitian photographers documenting Haiti’s politics, religion, landscape and disaster recovery with similar images taken by visiting photographers, including those of Haitian descent.
“I’m trying to display a history through a medium, and how this medium was used either by Haitians or by foreigners looking at them and trying to see if there’s a discrepancy between one and the other,” Duval-Carrie said.