"Beach Workers Walk Past a Post Office in Punta Santiago," Jesse Costa. Image courtesy of the artist and IBA.
When WBUR Reporter Simón Rios, WBUR photographer Jesse Costa and Boston Globe photographer Jessica Rinaldi traveled to Puerto Rico, they encountered communities utterly transformed by the storm. Hurricanes Irma and Maria left not a scar, but an open wound, one still fresh months after their journeys throughout the island.
At the time of writing, it has been nearly nine months since the storm dissipated, and the role of aggressor grows increasingly detached from the storm itself and more readily pinned to President Donald Trump’s lapel. He is the one, after all, skipping panels on environmental change,(1) defending “clean coal” in a regulation war of his own imagining, (2) and acting as a political buffer between his embattled EPA appointee, Scott Pruitt, a known climate change denier (3).
Much has been penned on the United States’ lack of a meaningful or long-term response to the ongoing struggle in Puerto Rico. Well documented are the disparities of the Federal Government’s responses to hurricane Maria and Hurricane Harvey, backed by information often sourced from the Federal Emergency Management Agency itself:
“During the first nine days after Harvey, FEMA provided 5.1 million meals, 4.5 million liters of water and over 20,000 tarps to Houston; but in the same period, it delivered just 1.6 million meals, 2.8 million liters of water and roughly 5,000 tarps to Puerto Rico (4).”
"Man Walking Under Debris," Jessica Rinaldi. Image courtesy of the artist and IBA.
Enter photographers Jesse Costa and Jessica Rinaldi, whose photographs line the walls of Villa Victoria Center for the Arts at Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA) in the South End. The shift in mood and purpose is palpable as these journalistic and documentarian photos find themselves in an art environment. The lighting is low, the photos are spot lit. Descriptions of the photos hang on hooks nearby, giving names to the shredded landscape and exhausted faces.
The stark reality of Costa’s and Rinaldi’s photographs cannot be overstated. The photos do not embellish; the destruction is plain to see, laid out in simple, minimal arrangements on the gallery walls. The images of suffering and fortitude are mesmerizing in their dream-like qualities, though they depict nightmarish disaster. The photographer’s were not there simply to capture, but to care. They took care to learn the names and stories of those depicted and the unique topographies of their losses. The lens provides the ability to give even more than voice to the communities affected when words are not enough.
“At Victor’s Funeral” depicts the neighbors of Victor Ruiz, Orlando Gonzalez and his daughter Nahielys, in a mausoleum. Victor died due to complications from his emphysema when he was no longer able to power the device that helped him treat his condition. Deaths resulting from damages in infrastructure due to the hurricane, including Ruiz’s, were not recorded with Hurricane Maria’s official death count.
This photo is cinematically illuminated. As Orlando and Nahielys move through a dark shadow, the illuminated mausoleum door to the left of of them is covered with Ruiz’s childhood photos, images of Jesus Christ, and flowers. Rinaldi presents the tragic juxtaposition of life and death—only a small glimpse of a new stark reality for many.
"At Victor’s Funeral," Jessica Rinaldi. Image courtesy of the artist and IBA.
Lending more insight and giving voice to the figures otherwise situated in the photographs, a film produced by Rios and Costa shows conversations between organizations in Puerto Rico about how they are filling in the gaps. Some in the organizations are quick to criticize the government’s lack of meaningful intervention. Mario Núñez of the Corporación del Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña, a government corporation that works with many community partners, shares that while they, “Can’t lose sight of the work [they] do…the reconstruction should fall to the government agencies tasked with that work.”
Despite this, these organizations are quick to define their efforts. They have history in Puerto Rico, no doubt, however they are stepping into a vacuum created by the administration’s lack of a response. Núñez further asserts that “as a community organization, a non-profit, we don’t want to take over the responsibilities that fall to the state.”
Mariny Vazquez Moldonado of HIMA, San Pablo decried the politicians involved in shunning Puerto Rico, saying that “you see the pettiness of politicians and you see help not arriving.” In the film’s closing moments, Rios posits that though there is calm after the storm, he asserts, rightfully, that there “will be more Marias, More Sandys, more Katrinas in the years to come.”
"Installing a Tarp onto Carmen Osario's House," Jesse Costa. Image courtesy of the artist and IBA.
The continued ignorance of Puerto Rico’s condition reached new levels of depravity when during President Donald Trump’s opening remarks to FEMA’s annual hurricane preparedness briefing, he mentioned Puerto Rico only in passing, ignoring altogether the New England Journal of Medicine’s new study on the real cost of life of Hurricane Maria (5). The study puts the current number of casualties at 4,600, nearly 72 times as many deaths as the currently federally acknowledged count (6). The administration’s lack of a response to this data, and the news media’s lack of transparent press coverage, suggests a prejudiced and systematic revisionism that will only expand the morally corrupt black hole of Donald Trump’s legacy.
Journalistic in origin, the photos at Villa Victoria Center for the Arts setting speak to the contemplative and intimate ways of knowing while acknowledging the wreath of history as it is braided together around us. While facts and fact-checking remain vital in today’s “Fake News” era, the meditative and tragic experience that these photos share bolsters the sustained vigor that journalistic and artistic spaces need to maintain their deluge of protestations.The work of Rios, Rinaldi, and Costa underscores the need for visibility, honesty, and accountability in today’s blighted United States. Yet beyond the politics are people. An island of strong people committed to rebuilding not only the structural elements of their homes, but the culture, heritage, and hope of their communities.
“Estelas de Maria” is on view at IBA’s La Galeria until July 3rd. The aforementioned film is available to view on WBUR’s YouTube page. If you can’t make it to the exhibition, this is a fantastic way to see inside Rios, Rinaldi and Costa’s journey through the voices, stories, and music of Puerto Rico.