Photographer Interviews

How Joseph Rodríguez Placed a Personal Take on Storm-Torn Puerto Rico in The New York Times

March 7, 2018

By David Walker

While news photographers were documenting the damage that Hurricane Maria inflicted on Puerto Rico in September, Joseph Rodríguez decided to take a more personal look at the human toll. He travelled to the island in October to shoot portraits and conduct interviews, and also document how residents were coping without electricity or enough food, water and shelter. A selection of the photos appeared with an essay by Ed Morales in The New York Times Sunday Review on November 5.

“My way of working is to give it a closer look, and go slower and deeper, vis-á-vis portraiture,” Rodríguez says. Puerto Rico is familiar territory for him. For several years, he has been covering the island’s economic crisis and its impact on residents. His stories from that project appeared in The Times in 2015 and 2016. Rodríguez is known for other long-term projects, too. Those include one about Spanish Harlem in the 1980s, recently published as a book by powerHouse; and East Side Stories, a 1992 project about the Chicano gangs of LA that he revisited last year.

Because he is well known for his subject matter and approach, it took only a few phone calls to get a two-week assignment to photograph Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. His first step was to secure some funding from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. They had previously supported his work in Puerto Rico about the economic crisis, as well as the update of his East Side Stories project. “I said I wanted to go to Puerto Rico,” Rodríguez says, explaining that he didn’t have to make a formal pitch. “I’ve got their ear so I can call people.”

EHRP executive editor Alissa Quart says she and EHRP managing director David Wallis reached out to Rodríguez first. They were reading news reports about the storm damage in Puerto Rico. “I thought of him immediately, and said, ‘We have to get him covering this,’” Quart recalls.

EHRP provides funding to journalists to cover stories about economic inequality all over the U.S. Wallis says, “We’re trying to [support journalists] who really know areas of the country that are struggling, from Puerto Rico, to the heartland and the South. We want people who have lived there, grown up there, or spent a lot of time there.”

But EHRP’s funding is meant to supplement—not replace—fees paid by publications that don’t have the resources to cover in-depth stories on their own. Rodríguez says EHRP offered him about enough money for airfare and a rental car. “They said their only stipulation was that I had to get [a commitment from] a publication.”

Layout © <i>The New York Times</i>. Photos by Joseph Rodríguez

Rodríguez’s photo essay about how Puerto Ricans were getting by after Hurricane Maria appeared in the “Exposures” column of The New York Times Sunday Review. Photo editor Jeffrey Henson Scales didn’t know what to expect when he gave Rodríguez the assignment, but says, “We just like his work, and I knew it would look different from [news photos] our national desk was shooting.” Layout © The New York Times. Photos by Joseph Rodríguez.

Rodríguez decided to pitch it to The Times because the paper published his earlier Puerto Rico work, and because the paper has such a big audience. “They are the paper of record, and they have two versions—English and Spanish—so the audience becomes even larger,” he says. He made his pitch in a phone call to Jeffrey Henson Scales, photo editor for the Exposures column of the paper’s Sunday Review section.

“We have a working relationship. Joe just said, ‘There’s a story you aren’t getting, and I’d like to go down and get it,’” says Henson Scales. “He didn’t know exactly what he was going to get. You have to be open to following the leads when you get there.” He adds, “We just like his work, and I knew it would look different from [news photos] our national desk was shooting.”

Henson Scales declines to say what he paid Rodríguez, other than to say, “We don’t have a lot of money, but I like to give at least a few days’ rate. It depends on who the photographer is, [and] how much confidence I have. And it helps if they come with [funding], as long as it’s from a legitimate funding organization that I can vet.” EHRP meets the criteria, and has provided funding for a number of stories published in the past by The Times.

Rodríguez took a low-tech approach to shooting because “there was no fucking power. None. Everyone had to run to the convention center to charge batteries, or use cars or solar generators.” He shot 35mm and 120 film with a Leica and a Rolleiflex, respectively.

After two weeks, he’d shot 40 rolls of film. He delivered low-res scans to Henson Scales for the editing. “I’m looking for strong individual images and working with photographers to create essays of 14 to 20 images,” Henson Scales explains. With Rodríguez’s take, he was drawn to the portraits in particular. Among his favorites were one of a boy in the doorway of an abandoned house, and another of 86-year-old Felix Rafael Cordero, sitting in the wreckage of his former home. “It’s a lovely portrait of him in his yard,” Henson Scales says of the latter portrait. In addition to the portraits, Henson Scales selected images that underscored the damage and privations, such as a downed power pole blocking a street, and residents collecting water and standing in lines at banks and supermarkets.

“I mark the shots I like, and send [my selections] back to Joe. We do that once or twice,” Henson Scales explains.

“He asks me if anything is missing,” Rodríguez says. “At this point, I just want to get the story out. It’s not my edit, it’s theirs. For stories, I leave it to editors. I’m not talking about books.”

Rodríguez says Visura and powerHouse will partner to publish a book of his Puerto Rico work, including the stories dating back to 2015. For the book edit, Rodríguez says he’ll scan every image, make 5×7 prints, and then tack them up on a wall where he can study them, move them around, and winnow them down over a period of time. “I can’t edit on a plasma screen. Narrowing it down on a laptop, you miss things,” he says.

The publisher powerHouse hasn’t announced a release date. “It’s a long-term project that we just started talking about,” says publisher Daniel Power.

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