Jen Judge, who had never been to Haiti before the earthquake last January 12, 2010, was moved to photograph the survivors because one of her family was among them. When the temblor struck, her father-in-law, Jim Gulley, was in Port-au-Prince, where he has worked on agricultural development projects since 2007. He and five of his colleagues were trapped under five stories of rubble when the Hotel Montana collapsed. Gulley and three others in the group were rescued after 55 hours of being entombed; two of Gulley’s colleagues perished. A few weeks after coming home, Jim decided to return to Haiti to continue his work there. Judge and her husband, Aaron Gulley, a writer and former senior editor for Outside Magazine, decided they had to go. Given the sudden turn of events, neither had been able to place a story in the weeks leading up to their departure. But the day they flew to Port-au-Prince, 40 days after the quake, Outside commissioned Gulley to write a feature about the experience, though they didn’t assign Judge the shoot. “An assignment didn’t matter. Given the way the disaster had affected us so personally, we felt it was important to go to Haiti and do our best to document what was going on,” says Judge. “I saw it as an opportunity to bring a greater awareness to the plight of the country. It felt like it was the least I could do.”
Judge and her husband collaborate regularly on stories and this expedition was no exception. “I concepted what I wanted to convey, and he assisted in making it happen,” she says. Judge felt that so much of the post-quake press had been focused on the physical destruction and damage that the human element and the individual tragedies were being overshadowed by the ruin. She kept seeing TV footage and images in magazines, and the chaos overwhelmed her. So she decided to photograph subjects on a white seamless in order to remove the physical disarray and focus on the human tragedy and emotions. “People had lost their homes and their families and many had nothing left and nowhere to turn,” she remembers. “I decided that showing the survivors on an empty background, vulnerable and almost floating in space, was a symbolic illustration of everything that had been stripped away from them.” Judge spent several days at numerous tent camps and hospitals around Port-au-Prince, meeting survivors, listening to their stories, and shooting their portraits.
Given the magnitude of the disaster and the horrific state of country’s infrastructure, the shoot was fraught with challenges. Just getting her photographic equipment to the island was difficult. When she left, commercial flights to Haiti were still grounded, so Judge and her husband hitched a ride on a private relief flight. “I had to convince the pilot that what I was bringing into Haiti was going to have a positive impact and that it justified leaving behind additional tents and food,” she says. Next, Judge had to find translators who could help express the nuance of her concept to potential subjects to make it clear that she wasn’t trying to take advantage of them. She says that asking to photograph people who have gone through so much was extremely difficult. “In these camps, only the ‘lucky ones’ had tents or tarps over their heads; many people were sleeping out on bare concrete slabs. And a lot of the survivors we spoke with were getting only one meal a day,” she says. “The cost of one of my cameras alone could have bought tents and food for a family in need for weeks. So it felt very difficult to have so much and still be asking these stricken people to give me something, even if it was only five minutes of their time to take a photograph.”
Since returning from Haiti, the images from Judge’s trip have appeared in two publications. A half dozen of the photos accompanied a feature article written by her husband, entitled “Shaken,” http://aarongulley.com/a/Published.html in the October 2010 issue of Outside Magazine. A series of portraits also appeared in American Photo Magazine, garnering Judge the Image of the Year award in the photojournalism category. The winning image (pictured here) shows Jitterbug Pierce, 29, embracing Josh Emmanuel, a patient she was treating at CDTI hospital in Port-au-Prince. Eight-year-old Emmanuel, who has cerebral palsy, landed at the hospital after his mother abandoned him in the wake of the disaster. Unsure of the child’s real name, the hospital staff decided to call him Josh Emmanuel, or “God rescues.” He has since been placed in a home outside the capital for children with special needs and being cared for much better than he was before the earthquake.
With her series on Haiti, Judge has put a human face on the tragedy. Today, she continues to travel the world and document stories that touch her heart, hoping to bring others like Josh Emmanuel to the public’s attention. Clients include: AARP, Sunday Times Travel, Condé Nast Traveler, Men’s Journal, Outside, Islands, DestinAsian, Snow, Stern. See more of the world of Jen Judge at www.jenjudge.com.