Based in New York City, Zarita Zevallos is a trained architect who grew up in Haiti until the age of 16. Like many other young Hatians, she came to the Big Apple to attend university. Her interest in photography came thanks to her father when he gave her a vintage camera. Zevallos started shooting landscapes, and then portraits. Today, her projects cover a wide range of subjects – ex-prisoners and injustice, relations to digital technologies, black masculinity, and skin color. Her process is augmented by conversations with her models and her own poetry.
Anaïs Gningue (AG): Is there a common underlying theme to your subjects?
Zarita Zevallos (ZZ): I try to focus on black community, but I don’t plan it that way. It’s usually while I’m reading or going through something that I realise something about my direct environment. Then I start writing about it and I plan a photoshoot.
AG: You named the series “I love myself” after a comment made by a model before the photoshoot. What was your original idea for the series before he made this statement?
ZZ: At first, it was just going to be a fashion shoot. I took a few clothes that I had in my backpack, and I found an old house that had been abandoned after an earthquake – in Port-au-Prince – so I decided to shoot there. The model was complaining that no photographers want to take pictures of him because he doesn’t know how to model. He wanted to prove them wrong. I told him, ”We can do something, I’ll give you directions.” Then he made the comment that he used to hate himself, because people used to tell him that his skin is too dark, that he shouldn’t play in the sun. My best friend has told me the same thing (his own family would call him “charcoal,” because he was the darkest of his siblings). It’s colorism – when people are classed by color. That’s why I chose to call the series I love myself.
AG: How do you interpret architecture in your art?
ZZ: I knew that I wanted to shoot in an abandoned house for this series, and it so happened that this one was partially destroyed by the earthquake. It became symbolic for a person that’s been abandoned or broken because of the colour of their skin.
Architecture has been interpreted in my previous work in the way in which I incorporate handicraft into my photos, such as in Kòktèl (which means ‘cocktail’ in Haitian creole, and explores the diversity of masculinity). I printed my work out and sewed thread into it. For this work, I kept in mind the flexibility of masculinity – there’s no set definition for how a man should be a man.
For Pariah, the series about imprisonment, the barbed wire I incorporated was the first thing that came to mind. It’s used around the perimeter of the prison to keep the prisoners from escaping, and it’s visually apparent that it’s something that’s capable of hurting you.
AG: Is “I love myself” addressing Haitians in particular, or is it also intended to address Afro-Americans in the USA? Based on your experience, are the stigmas related to blackness in these two countries linked?
ZZ: It was conceptualised for Haitians in particular, but the stigma is prevalent throughout the world in black countries, since we have suffered from colonialism. We have developed this hierarchy of beauty, because we’ve been made to believe that beauty and wealth are associated with lighter skin. This happens in Haiti, Jamaica, the Caribbean, South America, and all across the world.
AG: Have you personally suffered from this hierarchy?
ZZ: I have actually benefited from it, because my skin is lighter. I automatically fit the description of what it is to be prettier (my hair is considered more beautiful because it’s curly, for example). This classism puts me on a higher level of the social pyramid. I didn’t suffer from it, I profited from this mindset, from what it meant to be better than others.
AG: How do you think Haitians might develop or retrieve a sense of self-esteem from looking at your work?
ZZ: Right now, this “black is beautiful” trend is very important. We’re learning more about how beautiful we are. Thanks to this wave, my friends in Haiti are finally understanding how beautiful they are. There’s now a lot of photography that supports models with darker skin. Currently, it’s in demand on the modeling scene and on TV, because it’s seen as trendy. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, because some people don’t fit into either extreme: they’re not light enough, they’re not dark enough.
There are more black writers than ever before, more black therapists (you’re seeking to understand yourself, a white person or experience can’t teach you), and this wave of more black workers and artists is really helping us in this moment.
I try to explore different topics, not only “black is beautiful”. It’s very important, but we need to update our conversation. I think we need to talk about things other than colorism and racism, such as the prison system, and what’s happening in the ghettos in terms of marketing. These are the kinds of things that an artist needs to talk about.
AG: Do you have new projects coming up?
ZZ: Yes! I have two projects. One, that I’ve already shot, is about the recent hurricane and the subsequent flooding in Puerto Rico. The government in Puerto Rico has said that about 60 people died, whereas it’s more like 6 000 people. They hide the expanse of the damage. The president is not helping matters, and neither is the president of the USA. If this country were a predominantly white country they wouldn’t let them die like this. Even though Puerto Rico is independent, they’re still linked to the USA.
The second one I’m planning has to do with my emotions when I look back at Haiti. It’s about how the diaspora feels looking back home when something happens (like earthquakes, hurricanes, or corruption). You can see that it’s the poorer people who are suffering, but how can you help when you don’t trust the organisations donating to these causes? It’s going to be about the helplessness and hopelessness of the diaspora when looking back home.
An article by Anaïs Gningue
Featured image : Zarita Zevallos, Messiah (@kalaoumusic), from the series “Kòktèl“, 2017.
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