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Portraits Of Haitians In Miami

Jan 14, 2011 (Morning Edition)

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Photographer Bruce Weber is best-known for his shots of models and celebrities. Think Vogue, Ralph Lauren and catalogues for Abercrombie and Fitch. In the early '80s, his photo of Olympic athlete Tom Hintnaus wearing Calvin Klein briefs — featured on a Times Square billboard — became iconic.

But along the way in his 30-plus-year career, he has also used his photography to tell other, less commercial stories. In north Miami, he has mounted a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art — photos profiling the city's Haitian community.

It's a community Weber knows well. He first visited Miami on a shoot for Calvin Klein and now it is his home. "I fell in love with the beach and the water," he says.

And while he came to Miami for the water, he said in an interview at his beachside home, he has been drawn to the streets of Miami's neighborhoods. "People always say to me, 'What's the best part of Miami?' And I say it's people."

Weber tells the story of some of those people in his show, which includes 75 photographs taken over the last seven years in Miami's Haitian community. The show was inspired by a conversation he had with his friend, filmmaker Jonathan Demme after a screening of Demme's documentary about Haiti, The Agronomist. Weber asked Demme what he could do to help Haiti. "And he said, 'Bruce, take your camera, go to Krome, go to the people of Little Haiti.' "

That's Krome, as in the Krome Detention Center, a federal facility near Miami where Haitians are held pending deportation. In 2003, he went there with Haitian advocates and was shocked at what he found. Weber has visited prisons before on photo assignments, he says, "but never did I have a chill like I did when I went to Krome. And I saw men just treated so terribly — just because of where they're from and who they are."

In the exhibit, there's a portrait of a skinny young man, David Joseph, who was 18 years old when he arrived in the U.S and was detained by authorities. Attorney General John Ashcoft intervened personally in his case, writing an opinion denying Joseph bail bond while he sought asylum. He spent two years in detention before being deported back to Haiti.

For his journey though the Haitian community, Weber had an expert guide. Marleine Bastien is well-known through her work with the non-profit group she heads, Haitian Women of Miami. She introduced Weber to the community and worked with him like a collaborator. She found that Weber is able to communicate with the Haitian community in ways that other people can't: "He becomes like their interpreter," she says. "He touches their soul and then he's interpreting to others what the Haitian people have been through."

Many of the photos are from 2003, focusing on forced detentions and U.S. immigration policies. But there's another, more recent set. After the Haitian earthquake, among the places Weber and Bastien visited was a hotel in Miami where medical evacuees were being housed.

While there, Weber photographed four Haitian girls, all recovering from disfiguring injuries. They were hesitant to be photographed. But he convinced them, he says, by telling them they're as pretty as Beyonce — whom he's also photographed. In the exhibit, his photo shows four young women smiling, beautiful, beaming with personality. That was especially so, Weber says with one of the girls, Barbara Adrien.

"Her personality was so strong and so vibrant," he says, "that I can only compare it to the time I was photographing Leonardo DiCaprio when he was a young boy and we went to Coney Island together. And it was just like an explosion of life. You could have taken a million pictures of her."

Weber's show will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami through February. He says he isn't done telling the Haitian story, and is planning a trip soon to the island. "I'm hoping some day," he says, "that we have a better story to tell."

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