Save Our Souls: a window into Puerto Rico’s post-Maria realities
Photographers: Aniya Emtage Legnaro & Katie Jett Walls
Essay: Katie Jett Walls
In the weeks after the catastrophic hurricane damage on the island of Puerto Rico - from Hurricane Maria, which struck just two weeks after Hurricane Irma - I became increasingly attuned to the problems of the painfully slow recovery effort. While in the media, the worst case scenarios were intermixed continually with the politics of a new, and notoriously Xenophobic presidential administration, I was feeling very affected by anything that gave insight into the daily realities of the families and individuals impacted at every level of life by the damage to property, infrastructure and services. For every “news story” there were hundreds of actual people opening their eyes every morning to an insurmountable brokenness.
At this same time, my own thoughts about my photography were beginning to grow and change. I’ve had a successful family photography business for 13 years but I was responding in several ways to artistic desires to stretch and shoot work with a greater impact and greater demands on my skills and my eye. My longtime friend Aniya Legnaro was similarly exploring the idea of creating documentary work beyond her wedding and family business. Together, we decided to craft our own journey and lend our talents to those in Puerto Rico who needed their voices heard. We met in San Juan in January, 2018.
We were fortunate to self-fund our trip thanks to incredibly generous friends, clients, and family using GoFundMe as our platform. Through diligent research and outreach, we were able to connect with a journalist in San Juan who was providing support services to media traveling to Puerto Rico, and she agreed to work with us to find the right people to meet with and photograph, and she came with us to translate. Through her resourceful work, we connected with the staff of high school in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, a very small town in the dense tropical mountains of Puerto Rico’s interior. When Hurricane Maria’s torrential rains triggered mudslides and floods throughout their region, the staff of this school made their ways to the school and coordinated efforts to check in on each and every one of their 800 students. This meant walking on foot, many miles over steep and washed out roads, to connect with families - because all services, land lines and cell phones, were useless. Over the days following the devastation, they helped get food and water to families in need, they gathered clothing and other essentials for those who’d lost necessities, and they made sure the school was open as much as possible to provide students a place to come. In a remarkable feat of determination and strength, they held their community together. They let us speak with students, and took us throughout Jayuya to meet some of the families and hear their stories directly. It was the sincerest hope of those families that people on the mainland US would see the need and raise the call for adequate recovery help to be brought to Puerto Rico. We were there four months after Maria hit, and most families still had no power or access to clean water. Many were waiting for FEMA to respond to their applications. Many others had been offered too little to even begin to repair what was lost.
After two days photographing in Jayuya, we went with our guide to the San Juan neighborhood of Canterra, a “slum”, and home to many of San Juan’s poorest residents. Ironically, this struggling neighborhood lies in sight of San Juan’s “Golden Mile” - the heart of it’s financial and legal business district. It’s a short ride from wealth and international power to crushing poverty and disenfranchisement. Accompanied by a community leader, we were able to visit families and businesses in the neighborhood, to see how deeply a catastrophic storm can damage an already fragile community.
Our last two days in Puerto Rico were spent in the town of Orocovis, in central Puerto Rico. We were welcomed into the home of a local family where we visited with them and their neighbors, none of whom yet had power restored. We joined the families for evening Mass, where prayers and blessings blended with the ever-present and mind-numbing throb of generators.
The experience of traveling together and immersing ourselves in photographing these stories was a watershed moment for both Aniya and myself. The gift of connecting with human beings in times of struggle, being a witness to their experiences, and being just one voice assuring them that they matter, that they are seen, is a deeply moving, heart-rending and empowering feeling. It’s also a startling feeling. And at times, it’s a disappointing feeling: because this is a loud world with news cycles that change by the hour and humans have such short attention spans. To share the intimacy of photographing a person in their time of distress, knowing they hope some good will come of their openness, and realizing in the end, there are very few eyes and hearts open to their story, is a shock the system.
So as you view these images, I invite you to be a witness, to share this intimacy with these men and women who opened themselves up to our cameras, and to remember they still need recovery support. Their story did not end when we left, and Puerto Rico remains a breathtakingly beautiful place filled with warm people who are facing crisis with remarkable strength, and they deserve our attention.
A larger collection of images from this project are presented at https://www.saveoursouls-pr.com
Aniya Emtage Legnaro is a photographer and owner of Life Photography by Aniya living in Barbados with her three kiddos and husband. Although photography is her job and her love language, it wasn’t what she thought she’d fall into as a career. Aniya is a trained criminologist with a law degree. Having lived two lives since 2011 - criminologist by the week, photographer by the weekend, Aniya followed the light of photography, rather than the dark world of crime and opened her photography business in 2015. Primarily photographing weddings, Aniya documents real life stories with an emphasis on women’s issue - including the working moms project and most recently, Aniya will be entering the Barbados prison to photograph women who have been convicted of drug trafficking crimes.
Katie Jett Walls is documentary photographer, creating visual stories for families in the Washington DC area, as well shooting documentary projects that give voice to those in marginalized communities and witness to the human experience. Katie is the founder and editor of Confluence Magazine, which launched in September 2018, to highlight the documentary projects of emerging photo storytellers and connect them with gatekeepers in media and publishing. Katie is a mom to a precocious first grader and wife to a precocious computer nerd. She began her photography journey when she inherited her grandfather’s old Minolta SRT201 film camera when she was 25, ran away to photography school when she was 26, and took her first paid job when she was 27. She has never looked back.