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Take Five: Patti Gabriel brings Haiti to the Sheldon

This article first appeared in th St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 7, 2012 - Patti Gabriel supported herself and her two children through freelance photography, a job that demands constant searching for jobs that pay well. For years, she seldom had the luxury of shooting -- and showing -- something she did just because she wanted to. That freedom to do speculative documentary work, work she sees as helping others, makes much more special her upcoming show at the Sheldon: "Northern Haiti: Human Landscape."

While majoring in fashion merchandizing at Mizzou in the early 1970s, Gabriel took any photography classes she could. After a stint at May Co. and the birth of her first child, she began shooting "environmental" portraits of her children and her friends' children. Friends of friends saw her work and the resulting demand developed into a family portrait and wedding photo business. Her reputation for working well with children led to an 18-year part-time commission for Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital's magazine. That in turn led her to Haiti.

Haitian Exhibition Has Three Parts

Forty-five framed prints include Haitians in their homes and public places and a few landscapes. Many of the mothers and children pictured participate in a daily hot meal nutrition program at Hopital Sacre Coeur in Milot, in northern Haiti. The hospital and its community services are funded by the Center for the Rural Development of Milot foundation, CRUDEM.

Several of the children photographed overcame malnutrition with a regime of a peanut-and-milk-based, vitamin-enriched food called Medika Mamba. It too has St. Louis connections, as Meds and Food for Kids was founded in 2003 by pediatrician Patricia Wolff.

The second part of the exhibition is a slide show of about 200 photos that document the work at Sacre Coeur. The northern Haitian town of Milot was only mildly shaken by the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. And the hospital there soon became where critically injured patients were flown in for medical help. That winter as many as 50 operations, most life-saving, almost all limb-saving, were performed daily at Sacre Coeur.

The sounds of Haiti -- a Milot Catholic Church choir, street sounds and music, conversations and rural sounds -- are the exhibit's third part. Zlalko Cosic culled Gabriel's recordings into a 20-minute soundscape that will run continuously during gallery hours.

With images from her three decades as a professional photographer hanging around her, Gabriel talked with the Beacon about Haiti and the exhibit. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What first motivated you to photograph in Haiti?

Gabriel: I was shooting a Haitian boy with a spinal injury who had been brought to Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital and was interested in how he was able to come to St. Louis. The boy had been at Sacre Coeur hospital in Haiti.

Dr. Bill Guyol (who has volunteered at the Haitian hospital for years) started talking to me about the work of Sacre Coeur hospital, how it had grown to meet the needs of the country after the earthquake.

I am interested in how photography can move people who can't go there. I thought I might help them raise funds from people who wanted to help. I believe in the power of images to motivate people to help, the way Dorothea Lange's photos of the poor did (in the Great Depression).

I told Dr. Guyol that if CRUDEM ever needed a photographer to document the work and help people understand its needs, I'd like to go.

Dr. Guyol invited me to go late that November and December (2010).

On her computer she flashed through a slide show of images being framed for the exhibits. A line of Haitians with large plastic buckets waited for water distribution in one photo. After a photo of school girls in navy jumpers and crisp white blouses, she stopped at the image of a middle-aged woman, dressed all in white cotton, in the doorway of a mud-brick house on a dirt lane.

They have such dignity, such patience, such resilience living in that poor environment. Amazing how they are able to dress that way, when you see their small homes on dirt roads. Haitians are hard-working people not waiting around for others to help them.

I went walking all over the place. I went on a motorcycle to an outlying town where the hospital has a clinic. It's beautiful country.

I went back twice in 2011. I went back with some prints and gave them to the people in the photos. They are so grateful. They've never had a photo of themselves before.

I met some of the women who bring their children to the daily nutrition program at the hospital. There is a very good rapport between CRUDEM and Dr. Wolff's program.

Fewer hospital dollars go to community outreach now because they are working on improving the hospital infrastructure and opening a nursing school. I'd love to see (the hospital cook) Fifi's kitchen improved, it's very small and needs better equipment. My interest has been primarily community health. The hospital works to train families in basic community health.

After I started visiting the women, my pictures became more and more personal.

Was communication difficult? Do you speak French or Creole?

Gabriel: No; I took Chinese at Nerinx (Hall high school) in 1968 and '69.

(In Haiti) I had a translator all the time when I was going into the homes. The hospital did everything to help me when I needed something. CRUDEM paid my way there once. I paid for transportation the other two times, but I stayed where the volunteers stay. They took care of my housing, food and translators.

In the early years of your career, you had a wet dark room. I've seen photographers come to tears in dark rooms, staring into a face struck by some tragedy, as they lean over their images for hours, their hands awash in chemicals striving to print a perfect image.

Is there more distance between you and your subjects when you quickly crop images, adjust light and dark, seated in at a computer rather than in the isolation of a dark room?

Gabriel: That transition to digital was very tough for me after shooting for 20 years and working in dark rooms. You are right; we don't have that wonderful thing that got a lot of us, including me, hooked on becoming a photographer: the dark room process.

Digital is faster. At a computer you are still looking at images a lot, making decisions, and those people are still staring back at you for a time. Yes, it's not as long a time. I have a dozen images that I took in Haiti that are much stronger in my head than they are on paper. They are really personal. But from the final image standpoint you make the same decisions, how dark or light you make it is the same.

My goal is to keep it very simple, when I'm doing the documentary stuff.

Photographs change minds. They revealed the horrors of the Holocaust, helped Americans reassess wars, motivated donors to feed starving people around the world, to help people rebuild communities ravaged by natural disasters from New Orleans to Japan. What do you hope your Haitian photographs will do?

Gabriel: Images are a powerful way to keep donors aware of what is really happening rather than the kid-with-a-cup idea. I really believe an image can be put to much better use to motivate people to donate.

I was influenced at Mizzou by the Farm Security Administration photos by Dorothea Lange. Oliver Schuchard, my photography teacher, influenced me with those images of people that made poverty real. I took every elective I could with him.

I've been a full time photographer for 30 years but as a single parent of two children -- now 20 and 30 years old -- I had to do commissioned work that I knew I'd be paid for. It was a luxury for me to go to Haiti. I thought that I could get into people's heads and get natural images that portray things in a very realistic way.

I'd like this show to go to other cities where CRUDEM has volunteers and donors, Boston, D.C., Florida, maybe West Coast cities. If this show has an impact in St. Louis, CRUDEM may be more supportive about hanging the show in other cities.

Are you pleased by the show?

Gabriel: For the show, I narrowed down my 2,000 Haiti photos to 125. Then, Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, the Sheldon Art Galleries director, suggested eliminating some. I came back to my studio and decided on 45 images to frame.

I've been kind of shy about showing my personal work. It's a more vulnerable feeling that I thought it would be. But because it is such an important cause, it's easier to put something out there. I'd like to see Fifi get a new hospital kitchen, bigger, better equipped that would be easier to keep sanitary.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.