Close to six months after Hurricane Maria, about 150,000 Puerto Ricans (could be more depending on what day it is) are still without power. Many residents are still fighting to find clean water, food and shelter.
Vogue’s initiative to feature the island’s struggles in the March issue for International Women’s Day was intended to bring visibility to women that have been instrumental in the rebuilding process. In the article, Puerto Rico Se Transforma, contributor Mariel Cruz’s personal reflections and interviews with survivors ring true to the sense of community and resilience that has kept our people alive for generations under colonial rule. The choice to publish the work in Spanish online was notable against the traffic of articles largely written in English on the tribulations facing Boricuas.
— Vogue Magazine (@voguemagazine) March 11, 2018
However, the focus on Puerto Rican women was quickly overpowered by the photographs in the piece. Vogue’s choice to center Western photographer Richard Mosse and his imposing use of film technology to depict tragedy subsumes an imperial order we have seen for years in the media’s depiction of the Caribbean—othered people in foreign ruins punctuated by exotic color and abstraction.
At the bottom of the article, the photographer’s striking use of the medium is disclosed to the viewer. Employing cross-processed expired and sensitized infrared film, Mosse’s materials are wrought with a history of wide-ranging uses. Kodak Aerochrome film was developed by the U.S. military in the 1940s for reconnaissance purposes on the battlefield to detect camouflaged enemy positions but has also been used in aerial surveillance, the study of vegetation in forestry and cartography. The chance color shifts that infrared film produces were also emblematic of the psychedelic style of the late 1960s— where the acid trip aesthetic was used on everything from album covers to concert posters.
But, when infrared is applied to these faces and places ravaged by disaster, skin color becomes translucent and surrounding environs become a sublime otherworld of catastrophe. The unpredictable results of cross-processed film distort and alienate viewers from any trace of critical realism to connect with the humanity of the subjects as the vintage quality of the image suspends their present labor to an obscured temporality. The subsequent use of pink shellacking the pages of a decidedly feminist feature, in turn, serve to legitimate another imposed signifier of identity misassociated with womanhood—the photographic equivalent of White feminism’s pink pussy hat.
— Dizzyfreedom (@dizzyingfreedom) March 9, 2018
Over the course of the last decade, Mosse’s meteoric rise in the art world has taken the shape of exhibitions which use his film treatments to mediate public discourse on places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan capturing what he calls the “beauty and tragedy in war and destruction.” His largely scaled, flashy installations and filmic works attempt to challenge how conflict photography, and specifically cultural representation, is articulated. Mosse seems to be intent on testing the limits of the documentary form by using film purposed by the military to disorient viewers into consciousness. But, Mosse has failed to address his own complicity as a white, male image maker whose authorial vision has reduced complex traumas of political instability to a rhetorical device. To assert that his use of this medium is reflexive and subverts its original purpose, is to falsely claim that the signifying power of the photograph can’t be just as violent.
The history of the military’s presence in Puerto Rico is one that cannot be addressed in a three-day photo shoot. Upon the outbreak of World War I, Congress approved the Jones–Shafroth Act, which extended United States citizenship to Puerto Ricans making them eligible as a human resource for the military draft. During World War II, Puerto Rico became a strategic military and naval base for the U.S. Army. By the 1940s, the U.S. military purchased more than half the land area of Vieques including farms and sugar plantations from locals, whose lives became displaced. For over 60 years, the U.S. Navy used both Culebra and Vieques for target practice in bombing exercises which left the landscape altered forever and made the people sick. In 1950, a counter-revolution filled the streets of the island after an assassination attempt on Harry Truman by independentistas. The U.S. Army deployed 5,000 troops and bombarded the towns of Jayuya and Utuado—the only time in history that the government has bombed its own citizens.
What does it mean to ahistorically gesture about war through the magenta-hued pages of a fashion magazine as people on the island currently endure the legacies of this violence? Who are the faces in the field staring back into the camera?
As Dr. Hilda Llorens explains in her seminal book Imaging the Great Puerto Rican Family, our history as Puerto Ricans are rife with misrepresentation. “Representational colonialism” is a term that locates the non-reciprocal capture of a subject— often an exercise in domination through a semiotic system. Llorens notes that the landscape becomes a prevailing theme in this system: “I define the ‘peopled landscape’ as a system of representation that articulates the ethnographiable, the poor, and other embodiments of the unworthy at a safe and comfortable distance using the outdoors to effectively locate its subjects as part of the ‘natural’ world and environment. These photographs stand as evidence that these ‘others’ do in fact cohabitate closely and naturally with/in nature, as if they fail to have other identities or participate in exchanges that might occur elsewhere (e.g., in a living room, an office, a store.).”
In the case of Mosse’s photographs, the outdoors becomes the paramount backdrop for his production as the film demands lush chlorophyll green landscapes to produce the shocking tones he is known for in his oeuvre. Most of the images, then, follow this pastoral construction. The gymnastics Mosse has to do to pose Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz in front of an office plant and community leader Modesta Irizarry in front of a glistening body of water in Loíza is done to retain a kind of artistic continuity with the romantic panoramas in the rest of the spread, as the women generally work in conference rooms and community centers.
Maybe I expected more from the editorial staff at Vogue, whose demographic of readers have grown up on the internet and whose topical concerns have shaped more political commentary in the last few years. Certainly, the evolution of a fashion magazine writing on culture is precarious as revenue often determines the content. But don’t they have a responsibility to continue to push those boundaries to stay relevant in a moment where social consciousness is driving content?
What a missed opportunity to commission a female, Puerto Rican artist for this piece. Imagine giving a platform to an emerging photographer like Erika P. Rodriguez, whose journalistic coverage after the storm has been humanizing and meaningful.
If the direction was conceptual, how about including San Juan based Beatriz Santiago-Muñoz, whose careful tableaus of the post-military condition of the island garnered her an opportunity to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial in 2017 or Sofía Gallisá Muriente, whose expanded practice moves from historical narratives to the same circles of activism as those featured in the profiles?
How timely would it have been to consult Tanya García, photographer and editor-in-chief of the feminist publication HYRSTERIA? Could featuring the photographs of Elle Perez and their achingly intimate portraits surrounding LGBT communities open up feminist frameworks to empathize and reimagine the kind of intersectionality a place like Puerto Rico embodies? We are here. We are making work.
As Puerto Rico becomes a hub for neoliberal privatization and disaster capitalism, how we are seen by the world matters. How we see ourselves is even more critical. An awareness of the ideological systems that shape coloniality is necessary if we are to lift ourselves up. The stories of our people need to be told by those with experience on the island, and centered above outside voyeurs. The project of recovery should reflect a rebuilding effort rooted in self-determination and resistance. If America cares about Puerto Rico, the voices of Puerto Rican artists and cultural producers should be given a platform to make work that will mine our own double consciousness. We need space for this. Not only the kind of space that commands mass media, the marketplace or institutional art galleries but, a national conversation about the yolk of empire that has stifled our progress for 120 years.
To learn more about how you can support artists living and working in Puerto Rico, or to curate an artist for your next project, visit Beta-Local online.
Tamara Cedré is a Diasporican artist and educator who was raised in Florida and currently lives and teaches in Southern California. Her family hails from Arecibo and San Sebastián, PR. She received her MFA in Photography from the Maryland Institute College Of Art in Baltimore, MD. Her research interests include the histories of photography, documentary photography and socially engaged photographic practice.