photographing puerto rico's resilient creative community
One year after Hurricane Maria, photographer Nick van Tiem visited the island to capture the young people who are determined to rebuild their country.
Photography Nick van Tiem
This article originally appeared on i-D Netherlands.
It’s been a year since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, leaving behind a trail of destruction and killing thousands of people. Aid got off to a slow start and the island suffered from the longest power outage in the history of the United States, causing residents to queue daily for hours to get water, petrol, and food. Children couldn’t go to school, hospitals ran out of medication, and the store shelves were empty. Due to this slow rebuilding process and the sudden wave of unemployment, many young people decided to leave the island and work in the U.S., in search of a better future.
Dutch photographer Nick van Tiem decided to travel to Puerto Rico to document young creatives who decided not to leave the island, but to stay and help rebuild it. This wasn’t the first time van Tiem looked beyond the European borders for a project — he’s inspired by non-western creative communities, positioning his work on the cutting edge of fashion and documentary photography.
Prior to his departure, van Tiem used Instagram to approach the people he wanted to photograph. Once he arrived in Puerto Rico, he invited them over to meet him in real life. “From there on, I let them decide how they wanted to be portrayed. They got to pick the location, the styling, and the way in which they wanted to be shown on camera,” he tells i-D. “They often went for the beach, but in a few cases, we headed out to more cinematographic places, such as a neon-lit bowling alley. Besides that, I asked them to write down how they experienced the chaotic year in the aftermath of the hurricane.”
The result of this both visually and textually stunning project offers us a glimpse into a thriving creative community which, despite everything, is trying to stay afloat. “All of the subjects are dreaming of becoming stylists, make-up artists, or models — unfortunately, there is little support for this in Puerto Rico, let alone an actual market. There are no PR agencies, exhibition venues, or model agencies, which can quickly make the situation seem hopeless. On top of that, people of this generation had to grow up faster than they should have because of the disaster, which made them adjust their priorities. But that does make their perseverance truly impressive. With this series, I really hope to generate more visibility for this community.”
Ariana Coral Del Valle, artist
"I do modeling, design, work, enjoy beautiful days at the beach, meet new people, and try to learn from my mistakes. I used to be afraid when I was driving around in my father's car, but now I like to explore our island. Words can’t describe how perfect and imperfect this place is, and how much I love it."
Efrain Del Hierro, hacktivist
"Puerto Rico is an interesting place. There is a lot of misery, but there is also an overwhelming joy in the air. There are also opportunities arising from this unpleasant situation. You can go up or down, but one thing is certain: you are forced to choose your own path."
Wilfredo Joel Guadalupe Aviles, sales at Pandora
"I would not change my island for anything in the world. Even though we are going through one of the worst crises in our history, there is still hope. I believe in my country and my people."
Mariana Sofia Lima-Espada, singer
“When it rains I think about the people who have to life without a roof.”
Roma Riviera, performer
“There’s power in community. Our queer community, like always, has shown how resilient it is.”
Pablo Del Hierro, hacktivist
"It is time for Puerto Rico to reinvent itself, and the best thing is that it is happening organically. After more than 100 years of colonialist rule, and countless atrocities of capitalism and corruption, it feels as if the island is waking itself up through the creative energy of its people."
Carl Michael Diz Rodriguez, make-up artist and aspiring costume designer
"How do I thrive in a stagnant pond? How can I give back to my culture in a colonial setting? How can we ensure that our community flourishes? These are questions that plague my mind as we slave away for a system that wants to destroy us; these questions are my art. And it must come from a place of love. We must take the first step."
Erik Andrés Neumaier Colon, make-up artist
"I don’t know where I'm going. But wherever it may be, I hope I'm happy."
Po Rodil, interdisciplinary performance artist
"After Maria, I became depressed. I spent a lot of time thinking; how is life going to be from now on? A year has passed and it's encouraging to see how everyone has found their own way to get through the days. Everyone was in survival mode. It has enabled me to view my life much more clearly and it has made me very tolerant towards others and myself. Now I know what my priorities are and how I can work on myself. It has opened my eyes; taught me to be patient and enjoy the natural course of things. "
“Maria” is part of the joint exhibition “FOLLOW 2018,” also featuring work by photographer Sabine van Wechem, at Melkweg Expo in Amsterdam. The exhibition is up until November 4, 2018.