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Photography Exhibition: “Odyssée Garifuna”

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Robert Charlotte’s photographic exhibition “Odyssée Garifuna” is on view at Foudres HSE Habitation Saint-Etienne, in Gros Morne, Martinique. In her article « Que sont les Garifunas devenus? » [What have the Garifuna become?] Dominique Brebion (AICA Caraïbe du Sud) writes, “Robert Charlotte’s portraits are imbued with poetry, sensitivity, tenderness—far from the traditional contemporary neutrality of the photo-document. What remains, beyond the sociological interest, is the beauty of the images.” Here are excerpts:

The culmination of nine years of photographic quest, Odyssée Garifuna—to be seen on the rails of Foudres HSE Habitation Saint-Etienne, in Gros Morne, Martinique—took Robert Charlotte to St. Vincent, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and from the east to the west of the United States, to meet the Garifuna people. Odyssée Garifuna narrates the rootlessness [l’itinérance] of this people, born of the fortuitous meeting of deported Africans and kalinagos from the Caribbean. Over the course of the travels he embarked upon to explore one of the less valued—and even, little known—facets of Caribbean identity, Robert Charlotte substantiates the urgency of understanding how a culture evolves, endures, is transmitted or disappears.

The Caribbean exists because of a very strong cultural merging resulting from “encounters” of different influences—African, Amerindian, European—generating new societies, rich in contributions and diverse forces but bruised by the violence of their history and sometimes left without their real (his)story. In my opinion, these lacks and sufferings certainly forge a cultural richness, a permanent quest for identity, but also a form of thought inevitably linked to the history of slavery. Among the Garifuna, the refusal of the colonial yoke produces a culture linked to a cause, that of being free and remaining so. This strong approach fascinates me and leads me to wonder not about the history of the Caribbean but about the histories of the region and their consequences, explains Robert Charlotte.

The layout is elegant, dynamic, and refined. The scenographic choice of alternating huge two-by-ten-meter portraits printed on blue-backed paper and glued directly to the wall like wallpaper and smaller framed diptychs provides a rhythm to the whole. Thus, we see the very close low-angle portrait of this shaman and writer from Belize who seems to question the intense blue sky.

The diptychs clearly explain Robert Charlotte’s photographic standpoint and bring together images captured in different countries, in different contexts, but linked by contrast or, on the contrary, continuity. How does Garifuna culture progress in different contexts? How did it develop from the St. Vincent cradle—womb of this people with an original destiny, where the original language has already disappeared—to Belize, where we find the only surviving school where everything is taught in Garifuna? How does it survive in the very contemporary context of New York or Los Angeles?

The original posters imagined by the Atelier Agnès Brezephin-Coulmin perfectly reflect both the peregrinations of the Garifuna people and the long photographic exploration of Robert Charlotte. They contribute to a better reading of the artistic project and attest to the care given to the coherence of the exhibition. [. . .]

How does Robert Charlotte reconcile the documentary desire for a direct shot and the requirement of a perfect composition where sometimes unconscious aesthetic reminiscences emerge? As André Rouillé says, between the real and the image there is always interposed an infinite series of other images, invisible but operative, which constitute themselves in visual orders, in iconic prescriptions, in aesthetic schemes.

I do not rely on references to painting, although the process of constructing my photographs may resemble that of a classical painting. I am thinking for example of Horace Rodgers, The Farmer with Dog. It was raining that day, we were in a shelter, on a farmer’s field in St. Vincent. A dog kept going back and forth and sitting at his master’s feet. My gaze then rose to his face, inhabited by a combination of strength and gentleness at the same time. The verbal exchange between us was established and I proposed to do his portrait. The rain did not stop and, as I was eager to complete it, I proposed to him to take the photos under the rain. The rain then became an element of the composition of the landscape. The light of this foggy weather, the steep slope of the mountain, the tree and the animal in the background, machete in hand, the turban on his head and his dog, which followed him.

Closer to Raymond Depardon or Marc Pataut than to Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Frank, Robert Charlotte is as interested in people as in photography. He says he talks a lot during the shots even if he and the model may not share the same language. It is a question of establishing contact, of relaxing the atmosphere and the very installation of the mobile studio which could trigger a constrained and artificial attitude; the models are distracted so as to coax them and to allow the photographer to capture all subjects in their truth, their authenticity, their pride.

I take the same shot several times, in the same place with the same framing. Initially, in the viewfinder, there is the landscape. Then I bring the character into it without systematically directing their attitude. On the other hand, with the sight, I am extremely attentive to the expression of the face throughout our verbal exchange. I capture the image when the expression corresponds to the character, to the atmosphere of the moment, the place or perhaps to my own fantasies. It’s quick. I choose the image that gave me the most emotion during the shooting. There is very little post-production work. The work on the light is done during the shooting. The contribution of electronic light makes it possible to balance the differences in light and to densify the colors, explains the photographer. [. . .]

Excerpts translated by Ivette Romero. For full, original article, see https://aica-sc.net/2022/06/13/que-sont-les-garifunas-devenus

For more on the photographer, see https://robertcharlotte.wixsite.com/robertcharlotte00  and https://www.instagram.com/charlotterobert

Robert Charlotte’s photographic exhibition “Odyssée Garifuna” is on view at Foudres HSE Habitation Saint-Etienne, in Gros Morne, Martinique. In her article « Que sont les Garifunas devenus? » [What have the Garifuna become?] Dominique Brebion (AICA Caraïbe du Sud) writes, “Robert Charlotte’s portraits are imbued with poetry, sensitivity, tenderness—far from the traditional contemporary neutrality of the photo-document.