FRANCESCA ROMEO — INSIDE HAITI

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DIRTY CATCHES UP WITH FILMMAKER AND PHOTOGRAPHER FRANCESCA ROMEO TO DISCUSS HER UPCOMING DOCUMENTARY ON HAITI AND THE LESSONS SHE IS LEARNING ON THE GROUND AMONG A DISPLACED PEOPLE. AS SHE SEEKS TO ANALYZE THE VARYING DEGREES OF DESTABILIZATION PLAGUING THE CARIBBEAN NATION, ROMEO OPENS UP ABOUT HER TRANSITION INTO MOVING IMAGES AND THOSE INDIVIDUALS WHO INSPIRE HER WORK. SHE EVEN SERVES DIRTY AN EXCLUSIVE COLLECTION OF STILLS FROM HER FILM IN PROGRESS.
EDITED Anthony Spinello

 

 

DIRTY: WHAT WAS IT LIKE GROWING UP IN LONG ISLAND?

FRANCESCA ROMEO: I grew up right on the Sound and I spent most of my time either at the beach or the library as a form of escapism. I would say that the architecture itself dictated the cultural norm of conformity and I was off somewhere in the woods looking for the ramshackle Victorian.

 

D: SIBLINGS?

FR: My older brother Eric has had an enormous influence on shaping my perspective of the world, as well as being supportive and lending a sense of continuity to my experience of life.

D: WHEN DID YOU MOVE TO NYC?

FR: 1997

 

D: HOW DID MOVING TO NY INFLUENCE YOUR WORK?

FR: It simply afforded me a larger context from which to extract material. I could make my work anywhere; I would just need enough time to establish a relationship with my subjects.

 

D: TELL ME ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE IN THE MFA PROGRAM AT PRATT.

FR: It mainly provided a forum in which to practice my oratory skills and develop a more nuanced understanding of photography. The issues and themes related to documentary practice were considered secondary to aesthetics though, so I was often at odds with the larger discourse that favored formality over reality.

 

D: WHEN DID YOU FIRST START TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS?

FR: When I was seven years old. Recently I’ve realized that the purpose of photography for me hasn’t changed much since then.

 

D: WHO ARE SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT INSPIRE YOU?

FR: My entire bookcase at home is filled with monographs that serve as a reference library for my inspiration. Boris Mikhailov’s Case History was incredibly inspiring to me in its raw critique of capitalism’s influence on Russia in the aftermath of a failed communist state. This work specifically taught me that portraiture can be politicized in innovative ways. Diane Arbus’ typological survey of marginalization taught me to seek the idiosyncratic details in any subject. Richard Avedon showed me that you could make something from nothing by removing the context and eliciting all the weight of a photograph from the sitter’s expression. Harry Callahan’s pictures of his wife Eleanor exhibit a sense of romanticism and restraint that made me appreciate both his humility and critical distance. I derived my knowledge of lighting as a dramatic element through Larry Fink’s Social Graces, and it also confirmed my interest in socio-economic class structures.
Jim Goldberg’s Raised by Wolves showed me that gritty, casual pictures could be reformulated into a complex, fragmented narrative that employs the methodologies of cinema. Alberto Garcia-Alix trained me to find the humor in sexuality. Nobuyoshi Araki inspired me to view the erotic as both brash and sentimental. The work of Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe both exhibit the vitality of life as an emblem of culture, through fashion. Jonas Bendiksen’s Satellites taught me to create a layered body of work through the examination of infrastructure and reminded me that there are still geographical areas that exist beneath the social, political or cultural radar. Trevor Paglen taught me to stop conceiving of photography as representational and start thinking about how to utilize images to illustrate an economy of ideas.

 


 

D: TELL ME ABOUT YOUR RECENT TRIP TO HAITI & THIS CURRENT FILM YOU ARE
WORKING ON.

FR: Film is my first love because it gives the viewer entrance much quicker than a still image can. Motion pictures challenge the viewer to simultaneously project their own meaning and have meaning projected onto them, so the experience of viewing a movie is much more complex. The notion of entrance relies on the old adage that film is a medium that requires “the suspension of disbelief.” This suspension allows the viewer to be enveloped and become a witness to a world that is seamless and makes sense, and thus film can be very provocative if it challenges this expectation. So my goal is to find new ways to invert documentary filmmaking and disassemble preconceptions. The boundaries between fact and fiction have almost entirely dissolved in the last decade or two in terms of what constitutes “documentary” work, and though I remain an empiricist in my endeavors, I also want to challenge the way we perceive truth.

The truth for me always stems from an exploration of narrative form. There is a collection of essays by Joan Didion entitled We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live and I began my trip to Haiti with this phrase in mind.

The fact that there is something intrinsic to storytelling that provides catharsis is of great concern to me. Instead of navigating the terrain of my own personal life to craft stories, I wanted to broaden my understanding of social, cultural and political infrastructures, in a deliberate attempt to shift the content of my work. In so doing, Haiti serves me as a complex paradigm in which I can tell pertinent stories about survival. Ultimately I think that good work has to proffer questions, but really great work seeks resolutions and makes them apparent in its display. Part of the methodology of making this movie is to emerge with innovative models of change that could be implemented in order to raise the living standard of Haiti’s citizens.

I decided that initially I would immerse myself in the environment and do research along the way, interview anyone and everyone, and let the story tell itself by simply putting a frame around what is directly in front of me. This approach is very frustrating to people. They want the intent, the angle and the answer before anything is even created and I don’t think about art, documentaries or existence in this way. Life to me isn’t a “project” and life itself is the basis of any documentary work, and the best work occurs given a certain amount of freedom that allows for spontaneity in the process. I wanted to be careful about approaching Haiti without any presuppositions born of my own social conditioning so that I could create a logical set of resolutions based on my direct observations.

Having said all of this, I did set out with a few preliminary questions in mind in order to clarify my thematic intentions:

1. If we look at Haiti as an emblem of geopolitics, what actions work for or against it?
2. How does systematic oppression function and perpetuate itself?
3. What modifications to the infrastructure would better serve its populous?

 


 

D:WHAT DID YOU LEARN ON YOUR TRIP? DID YOU MEET ANY PEOPLE WHO LEFT IMPRESSIONS?

FR: Effective communication begins with the bare bones of a name. If you simply introduce yourself, from that point onwards an entire world of knowledge can open up if you are humble enough to listen.

Filming is a process of magnification, the physical impression of each person that I interviewed, and the auditory lilt of their voice, served to intensify my memory of them. Everyone from the voodoo priestess that I traveled with, the little boy emerging from the river on the side of the road, the doctor that was donating his assistance in a tent camp, the Rasta that wanted to run a school, to the hotel clerk that taught me Creole, to the pathologist seeking better equipment for her research, to the man that offered me a swig of rum in the backwoods, to the head of the UN mission who shared his insight, to the Pakistani psychologist working to assist those traumatized, to the man I encountered behind a decimated cathedral who lost his wife… all of these people taught me that life is comprised of individual struggles that manifest in different forms.

There was one man who left a big impression on me though, and we met briefly as I was walking through the Bel Air, which is one of the rougher neighborhoods in Port Au Prince. He saw that I was filming and came up to me and gently started questioning my intentions, and explaining to me just how many strangers from journalists to the police had entered their neighborhood and had intruded upon their lives. We talked about the rationale of filming, how documentation could violate privacy, how relaying stories could potentially help raise consciousness, about the continual disappointment of people who are subject to their lives being examined as a political measure rather than a personal one. As we were talking people began to gather, some were angry and defensive and others quiet and observant. When it was time to leave the neighborhood this man turned to me and said, “Thank you for the conversation.” and it was something in the tenor of his voice that made me realize just how grateful he was for this exchange. It was as if together, we got at a bit of honesty in the midst of a perpetually chaotic world. It was a momentary sentiment of relief.

 



 

D: WHEN / WILL YOU BE GOING BACK TO HAITI TO CONTINUE FILMING? WAS THIS YOUR FIRST TIME THERE?

FR: This was my second trip there; I first went to Haiti in 2008. My next trip is scheduled to shoot the upcoming presidential election in November, and I plan to return repeatedly until I’ve completed this film.

 

D: DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER CREATIVE OUTLETS?

FR: I am a big fan of writing letters on old maps and other ephemera that I find in antique stores. I think utilizing the post office for communication these days is a truly revolutionary act. There is something authentic about taking the time to do this and being precise with one’s penmanship.

 

D: FAVORITE FILM EVER?

FR: La Haine or The Lives of Others. They both embody the qualities of a near perfect cinematic experience for me.

 

D: IF YOU COULD MEET ANYONE IN THE WORLD?

FR: Spike Lee or Sean Penn. I am hoping that either of them might fund my film.

 

D: HELMUT NEWTON OR HERB RITTS?

FR: Neither. Richard Avedon!

 

D: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE UNIFYING THREAD IN YOUR WORK?

FR: Quietude paired with confrontation.

 




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