Fashion Photographer Bruce Weber’s Moving Portrait of Little Haiti

Known for imagining all-American brands, Weber turns his lens to those who have been defined out of Americanness. Jorge Rivas takes a look.

By Jorge Rivas Dec 14, 2010

Bruce Weber, the fashion photographer responsible for helping Abercrombie and Fitch and Ralph Lauren create their iconic all-American advertising campaigns, has turned his lens on to a new subject: Haitians affected by a discriminatory immigration policy.

Through his photographs of the Haitian community in Miami, Weber seeks to call attention to a U.S. immigration policy that treats undocumented Haitians who have been detained differently than immigrants from other countries. Typically, when a refugee who enters the U.S. without papers is detained, they’re allowed to post bail as they await their asylum hearings. But  Haitian immigrants and asylum seekers are held in detention for long periods of time without bail.

This wasn’t the case until recently. On Dec. 3, 2001, a sailboat carrying 180 Haitian refugees arrived in Miami. All of them were detained, but the event rattled immigration authorities concerned about a refugee crisis from the country. About a year later, in October 2002, another ship carrying Haitians made the almost 700-mile trip to Miami and, again, all the passengers were detained. But immigration officials feared that releasing the detainees regularly would lead to a mass influx of Haitian asylum seekers. So Immigration and Customs Enforcement declared that Haitians entering the country without papers could be held indefinitely–and with little hope of getting political asylum. Today, Haitian requests for political asylum have been met with the highest rejection rate of any national group.

Weber’s new work in Miami’s Little Haiti is in response to this immigration policy. It captures the consequences of a broken immigration system in the same way that photojournalists captured the affects of the Depression in the 1930s.

Weber is most widely known for his ad campaigns for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie & Fitch–all brands that have exceptionally white identities, and at least some of which have long been criticized as both exploiting and emphasizing the notion that "all-American" equates with whiteness. It seems ironic, then, that Weber’s Little Haiti work so movingly challenges the political and legal system that literally keeps the gates of Americanness.  But whatever the brands Weber shoots have stood for, his work has always been known for its ability to create character and emotion. This appears to be the same philosophy with which he’s shooting the Little Haiti series. 

All of Weber’s subjects in the Little Haiti series are looking in to the camera. There’s no overt political message, but when the viewer looks at a portrait, you look straight in to the person’s eyes. You are forced to connect with the subject on a human to human level.

In his early work on Little Haiti, which was first published in 2003 as part of a Sunday insert for the Miami Herald, the photos are the most straight forward and accessible. Each portrait includes a short description of the subject’s experience with immigration policies.

Bruce Weber
(Photo: Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for Maybach)

Many of his subjects exude confidence and power. Fara Aguste (left) was three when she stood in front of Weber’s camera. She stands tall, her eyes stare directly at the viewer and communicate a sense of confidence and calmness that seems too mature for a cute toddler. Her caption reads: "Fare Auguste, 3 years old. Detained two months with her mother by the U.S. immigration authorities; now released."

After reading Fara’s caption, you realize that her eyes have a story tell about how she gained that maturity. Every one of Weber’s images portray that same emotional depth and complexity.

Notably, Weber’s subjects also look at ease with him. Trust and comfort are visible in their eyes alongside whatever more difficult emotions the photos convey. He has portrayed his subjects in their own element and done so without attempting to make them exotic. In doing so, he offers compelling portraits of not just individuals but of a whole community. By telling their stories, he brings a sense of place and humanity to the too often abstract debates over our broken immigration system.

Ginette Eugene, Gina Eugene and Youri Drouinead, Golden Beach, Florida. 2010.

Gina and Ginette, inseparable twins, are nurses who have devoted their lives to rescuing
gravely ill children from their Haitian homeland.
(Copyright © Bruce Weber)

Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church, Little Haiti, Miami, Florida, 2010.
Copyright © Bruce Weber

Karls Paul-Noel, assistant chief Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, 2010. 

Paul-Noel is the highest-ranking Haitian-American firefighter in the U.S. Earlier this year, he was one of the first international rescuers to land in Haiti after the catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake. (Copyright © Bruce Weber)

Currently Bruce Weber’s Little Haiti work can be seen in "Haiti / Little Haiti" at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Miami through Feb. 13, 2011. A catalogue featuring writings and photographs by Bruce Weber is available by calling the museum shop.