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We Talked to Giles Clarke About His Photos from Haiti

Giles Clarke is one of our favorite photographers. A few months back, he brought us some amazing imagery from the still-devastated island of Haiti, and for the next two weeks you'll be able to see that work in a gallery in Manhattan. We called him to...
July 10, 2013, 7:17pm

Giles Clarke is one of our favorite photographers. He always brings us the best material of the craziest stuff, all with a smile on his face. A few months back, he brought us some amazing, thought-provoking images from the still-devastated island of Haiti, which continues to struggle with the aftereffects of the massive 2010 earthquake that killed hundred of thousands of people. Some of those photos, and more, will be on display as part of a two-person show at the Con Artist Gallery which opens in Manhattan tonight, and you all should go because his work is brilliant. We thought it was a great opportunity to call him up and bug him with all our burning questions about the work.


VICE: What brought you to Haiti three years after the quake?
Giles Clarke: I was down there because friends of mine were helping with the relief effort and I saw a lot of images— I was struck by the destruction and wondered how the hell they were going to rebuild. I wanted to see it for myself. I was invited to teach a photography workshop at the CinéInstitute, which is in Jacmel, on the south side of the island. I ended up staying there a few weeks and became very attached to the place in a short space of time.

Was that your first time in Haiti?
Yeah, that was my first time in that part of the world. It was quite a shock seeing how much damage is still there and how much work there is to be done and how messed up the infrastructure is. It's three years afterward and there’s massive piles of rubble and a lot of very desperate people wandering around. A lot of the pictures are from Cité Soleil. That’s the poorest slum in the Western Hemisphere. It took two weeks for the relief effort to get there in the first place and it seems like nothing’s really been done. There’s no running electricity and no running water.

And of course in the tent cities, there’s still 250,000 people living in tents. And somehow they seem to get by. The spirit of my exhibition is how they seek spiritual solace. Fifty percent of the population still practices Voodoo. I met a number of young priests who’ve turned to theology and now preach. That’s kind of a powerful thing.

All over the countryside there’s these small makeshift churches. Nothing’s being built out of stone anymore—people are still afraid to sleep under permanent structures. I was really struck by that and by the amount of people who are spiritually trying to reconnect with their future.


What were the Voodoo ceremonies you atended like?
It was funny because there is the notion that it’s about drinking the blood out of skulls and dark, Satanic operations. When you first see it, people are very much in that zone, but they’re calling the spirits, either long gone or somewhere in the future. The drumming is very important, it’s about getting that energy. This is where the frenzied dance comes in and the hands above the heads. It does have these symbols that are connected to the Hollywood vision of it, the blood, the skulls, and the sacrifice, but it’s something that’s been going on hundreds of years and unless you see it, you don’t understand it.

It was really dark. I took it all in mentally more than visually. I was spending time with a high priest and he kind of smoothed it all out. I don’t really think you can walk into these places; it’s a religious ceremony. You just want to respect that.

Was hard to get access to these places in Haiti? Did people view outsiders in a bad way?
Well, carrying around camera gear is not generally advisable, but when I was down there I went down with a friend. A lot off these slums are run by guys called "soldiers," who are young gang members. There were streets I wasn’t allowed down. I’d walk up a street and some of these soldiers would come out and go, “No!”

What are your thoughts on the current humanitarian aid situation down there?
Although 7 billion dollars or something like that went into the country, it’s very hard to see where that money’s gone. Supposedly there are 14,000 NGO’s down there now and there’s a whole network of money…. What really pissed me off was seeing the UN driving around in brand new fucking SUVs. I’m not sure all the aid is getting through to the ground level.

What do you think can be done?
The money needs to go to housing and infrastructure. Again, as I walk down these tent cities people say to me, “We need help here.” As far as I can see there’s not much new housing being built, and I didn’t see a lot of ditches being dug for pipelines. I think food parcels are like putting band-aids on a gaping wound. That being said, there’s some incredible people working down there and some amazing things being done. I think Haiti will eventually pull itself out of this.


Be sure to check out the show tonight. Here's the flyer: