Five Days in Haiti: Andrew Renneisen Captures Haiti Holy Week
By Brienne Walsh
When Andrew Renneisen was invited to see the nonprofit Hands Together in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, the photographer didn’t have a plan for a series in mind. The suggestion came from his former principal, Father Chris Beretta, of the all-boys Catholic high school, Salesianum School, in Wilmington, Delaware. Hands Together has been providing food, water, education and employment to residents in Cité Soleil, Haiti’s largest and poorest slum, since 1986, and it is run by Father Tom Hagan, a priest of Father Beretta’s order.
Renneisen booked his flight to Port-Au-Prince for Holy Week, the procession of ceremonies leading up to Easter, at the beginning of April 2015. “I knew Holy Week pretty well, having gone to a Catholic high school,” Renneisen explains. “I figured it would be an interesting time to be down there—and it really was.”
Renneisen says he has always been drawn to Haiti for its unique culture, including the prevalence of the practice of voodoo mixed with Catholicism. And as a documentary photographer interested in fomenting social change, the Caribbean country’s history of poverty and its recovery from the 2010 earthquake also engages him.
“I’ve taken photographs in some very impoverished cities in the United States, but Haiti looked like someone had dropped a bomb on Camden, New Jersey,” Renneisen explains. “The poverty was eye-opening.”
He realized that Cité Soleil was a place where he could tell a more in-depth story about a community—a story unlike those that feed the insatiable appetite of the catastrophe-consuming 24-hour news cycle. “The news media just grazes the surface of so many issues,” he says. “I want to go deeper and build relationships with the people I photograph.”
Unlike many of his peers, Renneisen, at 23, already has some freedom to tell stories he thinks are worthy of attention. After attending the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, he moved to New York City in June of 2014 to begin a four-month internship with The New York Times. During his time there, he covered local news in the five boroughs as well as events with a larger national scope, such as the funeral of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died while being arrested by an NYPD officer. Since his internship, Renneisen has shot more for the Times, and has also been published in The Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, TIME and The Washington Post.
Renneisen has quickly built a name for himself as a photojournalist by covering major domestic news events—the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, the 2015 protests in Baltimore and, most recently, the aftermath of the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting in June—often funding the trips himself. “There are so many issues in the United States that are deeply rooted in history,” he explains. “These stories are just so important and relevant.” Renneisen often books first and contacts editors while on location, asking to be put on assignment or have his work published. His bold strategy works. His photographs of the Baltimore protests ran in Mother Jones, and he wound up with an assignment for Getty News while on his trip to Haiti.
It is through Getty that Renneisen has landed his biggest break. In addition to shooting assignments for News, he was one of seven photographers chosen for the Getty Images Reportage roster of “Emerging Talent” last November.
It’s easy to see why Renneisen has found success through his work. Along with the visual impact inherent in his images, his photographs close the gap that usually exists between photographer and subject. While Renneisen comes from a place of privilege, one never gets the sense that he is merely a voyeur—or, even worse, exploitative. Rather, he makes connections with his subjects, no matter the difference in their socioeconomic or racial backgrounds.
On this trip, Renneisen built the foundation for such connections. He arrived in Port-Au-Prince the Thursday before Easter, and his only obligation was to take photographs of Cité Soleil’s Way of the Cross ceremony for Getty Images News. Otherwise, he was free to shoot what he wished. Father Tom Hagen, who is well respected in the slums (an estimated 80% of the population of Haiti is Catholic), introduced Renneisen to a group of men and women who acted as gatekeepers to the community. They served as translators and introduced him to subjects who otherwise might have been wary of being photographed.
Although the destruction of the 2010 earthquake is still apparent in the Hands Together community, what struck Renneisen most was the beauty of Holy Week. “I don’t know if there was one ‘wow’ moment,” he says. “The whole time, I was thinking, ‘Wow.’” Rituals he thought he was familiar with were imbued with a joy he had never experienced. He explains: “On Easter, I photographed young women bringing gifts to the altar. At home, our procession of the gifts is just part of Communion. But they came in and danced. It was absolutely stunning.”
Renneisen only spent five days in Port-Au-Prince, but he intends to return. “I showed my face in the community there,” he says of Cité Soleil. “So now I can go back and keep on building those relationships.” Despite the brief trip, his images paint a broad depiction of life in Haiti. Renneisen captured not only the religious rituals of Holy Week, but the everyday life of Haitians in vibrant color, celebrating the resilience of the community. Renneisen often tells stories in black and white, but of this series, he says, “If you take away the color, you take away the story.”
For now, he doesn’t have specific plans for the Holy Week series as a whole, but his aim is always to keep making powerful work. He says, “If someone can look at one of my images and be like, ‘Wow,’ if I can change the mind or opinion of one person, then I’ve taken a successful image.”
Nikon D810, Nikon D750
AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4 G
AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
15-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display
Adobe Photoshop CC