On September 20, Hurricane Maria struck the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, at just a hair under Category 5 strength. Towns and cities across the island, home to 3.4 million people, were devastated. The devasation in her wake is a humanitarian crisis with effects that will carry far into the future.
Fellow Documentary photographers Katie Jett Walls and Aniya Emtage Legnaro, from Washington, DC, and Barbados, respectively will be visiting Puerto Rico in January, 2018, to photograph, over the course of six days, six families living in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
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Aniya: September 2017 was an unprecedented month in our Caribbean history. Never before had we seen two hurricanes within two weeks of each other. What’s more, both Hurricanes Irma and Maria reached Category 5 strength within hours of reaching the islands. Nothing could have prepared the people living in the path of the storms for the devastation.
Katie: Watching the news from afar, I was just stunned to see the destruction of these hurricanes – but even more to realize how much more difficult aid and recovery are for islanders. I watched with some shock how disinterested our government seemed to be in getting aid quickly to the people of Puerto Rico.
Aniya: Yes. To have nothing, and to know the world has moved on, and to be living every day in a way you could never have prepared for is devastating to say the least. No one understands their plight, because no one is showing their hardships.
Katie: Exactly. Aniya and I feel very strongly that we need to visit, to show what’s going on, and be a vehicle for the voice of the people being overlooked and forgotten. We think that we have a particular ability to tell this story because we’re both family/wedding documentary photographers. We’re attuned to the dynamics of families and skilled at creating strong storytelling images. We’re wives, we’re mothers. We’re women. Our experiences give us a particular insight into families, which we believe will translate into powerful images of families living right now in the aftermath of the hurricanes. We want to document what daily life is like under these harsh conditions: how are families taking care of their children, bathing, cooking food, buying food, caring for the elderly. Are they able to go back to work, are the kids able to go back to school, what tasks of daily life are disrupted, and how these hardships are impacting family members? What are the small joys? What are the big problems still left to solve?
Aniya: There’s another aspect of this project that’s very important to Katie and me. Right now there’s a lot of praise for women rising up in the photography industry. More than ever women are buying cameras and building careers in the field, which is a great achievement for us. However, we dominate in areas that could easily be seen as traditional roles that we’re socialized for from childhood. Little girls are taught that marriage is a magical thing, something to aim for – so it’s no wonder that when we become photographers, we photograph weddings. Women are trained from the start that the family is our times. We take care of the babies, we cook, we clean, we get called by the school when one of the kids is sick. Could this be why we dominate family photography?
Katie: Right, and there are a lot of spoken and unspoken boundaries in the photography industry that say, if you start out as a family or wedding photographer, that’s all you can do. Working photojournalists can and do cross over into wedding or family work, but very rarely do women transition from family/wedding work into bigger documentary projects and socially relevant work. I even feel like there’s a strong thread of “perfect mom” expectations within the female dominated family/wedding photography world that says women should not pursue their creative or artistic ambitions in ways that would interrupt any “quality family time”. Aniya and I just really want to move past all those artificial boundaries that say we, as family/wedding photographers (and as moms) can’t or shouldn’t also shoot ambitious projects that are more demanding on our time, resources, and creative skills.
Aniya: Absolutely. This project will create a new trajectory for female photographers in the family genres. We’re forging through into more male dominated documentary work. And we’re bringing with us, not photojournalism degrees, but deeply intimate experience in photographing families. We have built successful careers from knowing how to tell a family’s story, we empathize and relate as women and mothers, with the hardships of family life, and because of this, we bring a unique perspective to documenting people in the wake of natural disasters.
Katie: That’s why our entire project is being designed around families. We are working now with a Puerto Rican friend to connect directly with families in three towns. We want to spend a full day with each family documenting real life – just like we do with our clients – but knowing that their present “real life” is awash, quite literally, in a storm of consequences they have little control over. As of Thanksgiving week, 50% or more of residents in Puerto Rico are still without power. People with chronic health conditions are dying from lack of access to care. People with means are leaving for better prospects on the mainland United States, leaving those without means to struggle through a heartbreakingly slow recovery. Longstanding economic and political realities impede progress as well. And individual families stand in the crosshairs. We hope to amplify their voices through our photos and be a means of bringing attention to their needs, and ultimately bringing help.
Aniya: So that’s what we’re trying to do. And you know, because we’re doing this on our own, not with the backing of a media outlet like photojournalists have, we’re looking at how we fund this kind of work. It’s never easy to chart a new course, but like any documentarian, we will need a guide, translator, gas for transportation around the island, and lodging. We’re investing our own resources but we’re also running a crowdfunding campaign because we think that other photographers and some of our clients will believe in this work, and help make it happen. There are some really terrific thank you gifts for larger donations too: a signed and numbered print from the project, a softcover photo book also signed and numbered. Those will be really special. We’re so grateful for everyone who can help in this way.
It’s not easy to get an assignment from a publication when you’re outside the bounds of traditional photojournalism. Katie and Aniya are doing this all on their own! To that end, they’ve set up a GoFundMe, for anyone willing to help make this project happen!
About Aniya Legnaro: Aniya is a documentary wedding and family photographer living in Barbados with her daughters and husband, 2 dogs and 5 turtles. She is an avid surfer, reader and coffee drinker. She understands the importance of documenting and firmly believes that kids and the elderly hold the key to life. Kids have fantastic imaginations, with no fear or judgment. The elderly have fantastic stories from life lived and know time is too short to have fear or judgments. Website
About Katie Jett Walls: Katie is a documentary photographer specializing in families and street photography. A proud resident of the Washington DC, Katie lives in a rowhouse with her nerdy husband and precocious kindergartener. Though her family would tell you all she ever does is take pictures, or talk about pictures, in fact she also reads lots of British crime novels, drinks coffee with the other school moms, and binge watches all the best shows. She believes the world offers it’s stories to anyone who will look or listen. For that reason, she and her camera is always ready to see and hear. Website