Photographer Wyatt Gallery knows what devastation looks like. From the wake of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka to the aftermath of last year’s catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti, his lens has focused in on a fair share of heartache and loss.
Gallery, a native of East Falls and a 1993 graduate of William Penn Charter School, will be returning to his former high school tonight to present his new book Tent Life: Haiti, an illustrated book which features snapshots from tent cities in Haiti after the earthquake.
He explains that although he frequently photographs people who have lost everything, their attitudes are often so positive, so relieved to be alive, that you forget they are victims.
In Sri Lanka, families posed on the ruins of their homes, surrounded by rubble, yet the photos evoked pride, not pity.
“What I was really shooting was the strength and resilience of people living through a natural disaster,” Gallery said.
When Gallery finished his Bachelor of Fine Arts at NYU’s Tisch school, he thought he would work as a commercial architectural photographer, taking pictures of buildings and other stationary objects.
Instead, he turned down a job offer from Entertainment Weekly magazine and traveled around the Caribbean where he became fascinated with foreign cultures and spirituality.
He is currently documenting Jewish communities in the Caribbean.
Since his first Caribbean trip, he has traveled to Sri Lanka in the wake of the tsunami, to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and to the tent cities in Haiti.
“We spent all day everyday going into people’s homes,” Gallery recounts from his time in New Orleans. “It became to me about showing the people through their belongings and through their personal spaces and making portraits of them, through this loss.”
Gallery felt obliged to record the story of suffering people, hoping to find a way to help them in the process.
Together with his friend, Philadelphian photographer Kareem Black, he traveled to Sri Lanka following the devastating tsunami, where he realized how photographing people helped the community heal.
“We took photographs of people and gave them Polaroids of themselves and they really felt like this was a tribute to them,” Gallery said. “That’s when we began realizing that just photographing people was helping the situation, was helping them feel better.”
“It’s a direct symbol that they survived, they’re still alive,” Gallery explains, “they’re standing, they exist and someone else cares about them.”
Gallery’s photographs often are portraits, but do not contain a person. He believes that the setting of a person’s life, their habitat, can often be more revealing than their physical presence.
“If I photograph someone’s home with them in it, the first thing the viewer is going to look at is the person. They become the subject,” Gallery explained. “Often times I want to give a portrait of this person or of this culture or society through their places.”
Although inspired by the people that are the subjects of his photos, he has personally felt the trauma of witnessing the aftermath of these natural disasters.
His camera bag “still smells like tsunami,” and in New Orleans he realized it was time to leave when he began having nightmares.
“I would wake up in the night dreaming that I was buried in the muck and mud and debris of someone’s home and I would literally wake up in shock.”
He doesn’t limit the subject of his work to tragedy. He has also photographed the Indian Diaspora in the Caribbean and spiritual sites around the world.
In life, as in photography, knowing where to go and what to do is instinctual.
Gallery advises today’s youth to follow their hearts, seek projects that are important to them, and to carry self confidence.
“The first step is figuring out what your dream is. The second step is knowing that it’s possible.”
Tent Life: Haiti hits book shelves this April. Gallery’s book discussion will be held at the Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts at 6 p.m. tonight with a book signing to follow. All proceeds from the book go toward Sean Penn’s J/P Haitan relief fund. To learn more about Gallery and his photographs, visit wyattgallery.com and tentlifehaiti.com.