Hilary Wallis earned a B.S. in Journalism and Communications from the University of Florida, Gainesville and studied British History and Politics independently at the FSU London Study Center in the UK.
Wallis has been a documentary photographer covering human-interest stories in Honduras, Papua New Guinea, Guatemala and Haiti. She has also served as a photographer for the Inter-Press Service in Ethiopia and assisted in developing an arts and culture magazine in Florida. Hilary Wallis has served on the Board of Directors for The World Affairs Council of New Orleans and has taught guest workshops and given presentations at the Arizona Refugee Resettlement Annual Conference, Arts in Education program at Harvard University, Peace Corps Uganda Headquarters, International School of Uganda, Syracuse University London Center and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Here, she shares her images from a commissioned trip to Haiti.
Q: Can you provide some background on these Haiti images? Where and when were they taken?
A: I was commissioned by a Washington, D.C. based organization to cover the length and breadth of Haiti: documenting the work force, infrastructure, agricultural projects and the effects on Haitian communities. Journalist and author Michael Deibert, whom I have worked with on assignments to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Honduras, and Papua New Guinea, accompanied me.
The images were taken in December 2014 in rural and urban locations across Haiti, including the far southwestern tip of Port Salut, Les Cayes, Saint-Louis-du-Sud, Camp-Perrin, the Péligre Dam (the source of the majority of Haiti’s power), the Wild West environs of Saint-Marc, the controversial Caracol industrial park in the north and the neighboring community of Limonade, Camp Coq, Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s breadbasket – the Artibonite Valley, the dramatic mountainous landscape of Kenscoff – south of the capital Port-au-Prince, and the endless rice fields of Grande Saline stretching for miles all the way to the Gulf of Gonâve.
Q: What camera and lens(es) did you use to shoot these images?
A: The Leica T and Vario-Elmar T 18-56 mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH. lens with Visoflex.
Q: What made this equipment particularly suitable for this project?
A: The Leica T proved to be a capable yet compact camera that avoided attracting unwanted attention or appearing intrusive. Haitians are often uneasy and wary about being photographed, and they have grown more so since the 2010 earthquake.
The Visoflex electronic eyelevel viewfinder was an especially useful accessory that allowed me to shoot from different angles while remaining unobserved, putting my subjects at ease. The quality of the image files straight out of the camera, and the level of tonal detail were excellent.
Q: This is a straightforward picture of workmen laying a sanitation or irrigation pipe in a rural area, yet the dignity of the men standing there and the bright cloud-filled late afternoon sky in the background seem to suggest hope and the possibility of a bright new future. Do you agree, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: That is true. At first glance, the image is simple. I spotted the group of men from quite a distance away, and I approached slowly. The men were in good spirits, and I was struck by the pride they took in their work. I stood watching them for nearly half an hour as the sun was starting to set behind large rain clouds. I circled them a number of times, and they let me know they appreciated me recording the moment, even though no words were spoken.
Q: The remarkable portrait of an old woman suggests many things — perseverance in the face of adversity, endurance, survival, and above all human dignity. How do you feel about this image and what do you think it communicates to viewers? By the way the technical quality of this image quality is outstanding, so will you please provide the tech data including aperture, focal length, exposure and ISO?
A: I met this elderly woman in Limonade, the place where Christopher Columbus and his crew celebrated the first Christmas in the Americas in 1492. This woman was surrounded by her family and friends, as is often the case in developing countries and quite at odds with Western societies, where the elderly can often feel alone. The lines on her face may show hardship, yet they also show incredible resilience. I hope viewers can see there is much more to her story than my two dimensional picture. I think this is a powerful woman who has lived a full life. I shot the picture at f/3.5 and 1/50 sec (-0.3 exposure compensation). The focal length was 18 mm and the ISO was 1250.
Q: The picture of a fishing boat under a cloud-filled sky has a timeless quality, as though it could have been taken 50 or 100 years ago. What do you think this image says about Haitian culture, and why did you include it in this portfolio?
A: I woke up before dawn and strolled along to the far end of Port Salut’s beach watching many fishermen launch their boats into the sea. Fishing is still very much a part of Haitian life in coastal communities, and it is a tradition that continues to endure. This particular boat was the only one of its kind on the beach but had a stoic presence. I included this image because it symbolizes the unswerving Haitian spirit.
Q: If any of the images in this portfolio expresses the sheer joy of being in the world it is this image of a handsome, muscular young man with a broad smile on his face simply standing against a bright sky filled with puffy clouds on a sunny day. The fact that he is leaning slightly toward his right and cut off at the waist gives him a tremendous visceral presence, aided by the excellent technical quality of the image. Who is this guy, where did you take the picture, and why did you decide to compose it in this way. Also, will you please provide the tech data for this image?
A: The image was taken in Haiti’s breadbasket – the luscious Artibonite Valley. The muscular man was a field worker, whose curiosity was piqued by the interviews my colleague was recording by the riverbank. Most noticeably, he had a happy disposition and was full of joy – evidently satisfied with his day’s work. I shot him from a low-angle perspective to accentuate his masculinity and strength. Tech data: Exposure, f/5.0 and 1/1000 sec (-0.3 exposure compensation). Focal length: 35 mm. ISO 100.
Q: Did you have a specific goal for these images? If so, do you feel like you achieved it?
A: The public’s perception of Haiti is still informed by images of the destructive 2010 earthquake. Haiti is a much maligned and misunderstood country. I wanted to show the strength, vitality and dignity of the Haitians, as well as the work they do throughout the country, be it in a hospital, a factory, a water treatment plant, milling rice, pounding coffee or being an engineer at a dam or a road construction worker.
Haiti is not an easy country to travel in. Conditions are challenging, and infrastructure is limited and in many cases, non-existent. Gaining Haitians’ trust is difficult, particularly in rural areas. However, as a female photographer, I found that at times my presence alone defused potentially volatile situations. Locals were often impassioned in their responses during interviews. For example, on one occasion, a knife was thrown in our direction and landed at the feet of our interviewee. I found that a calming explanation of whom, what or why I was photographing often enabled tensions to dissipate.
During my assignment, Haiti’s tumultuous present day politics came to a head, with the forced resignation of prime minster Laurent Lamothe. We were compelled to dodge the ensuing violent street protests in Cap-Haïtien, Port-au-Prince and Gonaïves – adding to the already unpredictable nature of navigating Haiti.
Despite the ongoing difficulties in the country, my aim was to capture the dignity of the Haitians and reflect on the success of the infrastructural, agricultural initiatives and their effects on the communities from the cities, to the townships, to the rural farmlands and remote coastal areas.
At times, it was a difficult assignment, requiring arduous travel to many remote locations. It culminated in a bout of dengue fever on my return to France and a visit to the emergency ward on Christmas Day. My brush with a mosquito-borne illness pales in comparison to the difficulties the Haitians endure on a daily basis, battling diseases such as malaria and severe outbreaks of cholera. Limited medical facilities and challenging sanitary conditions are still prevalent throughout the island as Haitians defiantly continue living their lives on this unpredictable island. It bears remembering that the Haitian Revolution was the only successful slave revolt in human history, and overcoming the odds is central to their core.
Q: You mentioned that the public perception of Haiti is still shaped by the images of the aftermath of the great earthquake of 2010 and that you feel Haiti is “a much maligned and misunderstood country.” In what ways do you think Haiti is maligned and misunderstood?
A: Haiti is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation. Many images of poverty and turmoil are taken in the capital Port-au-Prince and often with political undertones. The public perception of Haiti is also entwined with the mysticism of voodoo. But Haiti’s positive and creative influence has spread far and wide. I lived in New Orleans for two years, and the iconic and beloved architectural style in the French Quarter originated mostly from immigrants from Cap-Haïtien.
In the media you rarely read anything uplifting about Haiti. You do not learn of its vibrant visual arts, the dedicated and talented musicians, or the devoted contributions of the Haitian diaspora around the world. I wanted to show the strength, vitality and dignity of the Haitians, as well as the hard work they do throughout the country.
A: I first became aware of issues in developing countries when I was traveling solo through the Middle East thirteen years ago before the second Iraq War. I spent time discussing politics and humanitarian issues with people I encountered in these countries and became aware of their cultures and the challenges they face. Advocacy has been a driving force and a central issue in my photography, painting and also when I created programs for developmental organizations. When it comes to enduring personal hardships, mine pale in comparison to the daily circumstances of those I document. Having worked with individuals affected by extreme poverty, HIV/AIDS, refugees and war survivors – their strength of character motivates me and is a testament to what is truly important in life.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you plan on taking a similar approach in future travel and documentary projects, and continue to focus on people and cultures?
A: I do have plans to travel and document specific cultures that are more indelibly connected to their lands. As I grow older, I am more concerned with depicting the relationship between man and the environment. I do hope to take a similar approach as I did with the Haiti project, by exploring less documented areas.
Thank you for your time, Hilary!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Hilary on her website.