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Book Review: State


Book Review State By Paolo Woods and Arnaud Robert Reviewed by Karen Jenkins There are many ready ways to look at the State of Haiti and the state it’s in; photographer Paolo Woods and journalist Arnaud Robert masterfully make the subject their own in this collaborative work. They foreground the constant attention of an international community that has followed the maelstrom of political corruption, natural disaster, persistent poverty and other ills in this island nation.

State. By Paolo Woods and Arnaud Robert.
Elysee, 2014.
 
State
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

State
By Paolo Woods and Arnaud Robert
$66.00
Elysee, 2014. 248 pp., color illustrations, 8x10". 


There are many ready ways to look at the State of Haiti and the state it’s in; photographer Paolo Woods and journalist Arnaud Robert masterfully make the subject their own in this collaborative work. They foreground the constant attention of an international community that has followed the maelstrom of political corruption, natural disaster, persistent poverty and other ills in this island nation. In all this looking and attending to, many see Haiti in a state of victimhood, or as a forsaken place in need of salvation. There are more NGO’s per capita there than anywhere else in the world and Woods and Robert question the motives and outcomes of such foreign agencies that have come to function as a de facto Haitian State. They also point to the voluminous attentions of other journalists and photographers, especially those who came to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, in devastation’s wake, expecting the worst and finding it. Without disavowing the headlines and big pictures, Woods and Robert sought out Haitians’ homegrown means of survival, their stand-in systems of order and belief, their everyday normal. Three years of interviews and exploration led to a body of work ordered into thematic sections: Presidents, Owners, Whites, Leta (the Creole word for state), Substitutes, and Gods.

State. By Paolo Woods and Arnaud Robert. Elysee, 2014.
State. By Paolo Woods and Arnaud Robert. Elysee, 2014.

In vignettes and broader prose, Robert writes of how Haitians send up their leaders, with veneration and condemnation, in a complex national story of creation myth and cautionary tale. There’s a lot of room for wishful thinking where the short tenure of many heads of state (and spotty record keeping) once allowed Haitians to determine their birth date by who was then in office. Tangible commemorations populate Woods’ photographs, with a solidity and persistence that belies the brevity of the depicted leader’s term of influence or favor. From temporary reanimation in parade effigies and papier-mâché masks to the relative fixity of murals and monuments, former rulers are everywhere. A bust of a former head of state is foil to a talking head television personality seated before it and a presidential statue becomes an impromptu masthead to a tarp tent, in a public propping up of a too common post-earthquake shelter. The section on Gods looks at not at deities but to the faithful and following. Much of Catholicism’s iconography crumbled in the earthquake, and a Protestant evangelical push followed behind. Robert argues that the indigenous vodou is still a strong, if diffuse force, and as much the spectacle of Haiti as its poverty. In Woods’ photographs, Haitian believers and foreign saviors overlap in moving encounters and going through the motions, in so much hand raising and eyes-closed ecstasy.

State. By Paolo Woods and Arnaud Robert. Elysee, 2014.
State. By Paolo Woods and Arnaud Robert. Elysee, 2014.

A particularly poetic marriage of Woods’ photographs and Robert’s writing comes with the theme of substitutes — in addition to the outside props, those indigenous stand-ins for a functional state devised by the Haitian people. The lottery is one; the authors discovered that Haitians spend a quarter of the GDP with fingers crossed, purchasing chances at 100,000 borlettes, tiny lottery shops and major national employers. Photographs of bare bones radio studios, in windowless concrete rooms might in a different context suggest a fringe voice or pirate operation; but in Haiti, radio is not only a luxury and high technology, but is also a national voice and a rare public space, keeping a pulse on the everyday and exceptional events. State is standout collaboration; photographs and texts are made better in their pairing and add up to a cogent and stirring exploration of the Haitian State, as a touchstone for the nation’s aspirations and disappointments. Woods and Robert have also deftly unpacked the concept of attention itself in a place under the arguably benevolent gaze and guidance of a legion of outsiders — how it’s both an extraordinary circumstance and one more thing woven into the Haitian normal.—KAREN JENKINS

KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.

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