Hurricane Irma hit St. Maarten on the morning of 06 September 2017. The violent windstorm tore across the Caribbean island at peak intensity – ripping buildings from their foundations, uprooting trees, and causing an island-wide blackout. The strongest storm on record to hit the Atlantic region, Irma caused multiple fatalities and damages estimated at $2.98 billion. St. Maarten was left in ruins.
Born and raised on the nearby island of Curaçao, photographer Gilleam Trapenberg regularly visited St. Maarten on holiday as a child. “… we would spend most of our days at the beach,” he remembers. “After my father opened a business [there] many years ago, I got to know the island and its people better.” Trapenberg had been keen to visit St. Maarten in the aftermath of the natural disaster but was prevented by ongoing projects in Europe. In January 2019, he was finally able to return.
For Through the Eyes – a new creative series from Ace & Tate that, through talks and the commissioning of new work, invites visual artists to explore different themes – Trapenberg decided to photograph the island. Responding to the theme ‘optimism’, the photographer created a series documenting St. Maarten in the aftermath of the storm. His work hones in on the energy and strength of the Islanders committed to reconstructing their home, along with the return of the tourism industry that is crucial to the island’s survival.
Trapenberg’s resulting body of work captures the optimism of the place despite the wreckage and suffering inflicted upon it. Avoiding a straight-forward documentary approach, the photographer frames St. Maarten and its inhabitants in a positive light – returning to life as it was before the disaster. From locals going about their everyday lives to beaches teaming with visitors drenched in the blistering sun.
In the below interview Trapenberg discusses his commissioned series and the personal significance of the subject.
You explored the theme of optimism on the island of St. Maarten, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. St. Maarten was one of the worst-hit islands. What was your experience of exploring optimism in the wake of such wreckage and suffering?
I visited St. Maarten in January 2019, which was about one-and-a-half years after Hurricane Irma. The timing was important as, that February, most of the major hotels opened again. Standing on Maho Beach, the famous stretch of sand where airplanes fly above, you would not believe St. Maarten had been wiped out by the storm.
Yet, it was difficult. On the one hand, people were optimistic. This isn’t the first hurricane and a lot of the locals I spoke to kept saying that the island always returns stronger than ever. However, it has not been easy. A lot of homes that were destroyed were not insured. People have had to rebuild using their own money instead of receiving money from a trust fund that the government set up.
Your project Big Papi also centres on Curaçao and themes of personal significance. What are the creative benefits of exploring a subject-matter to which you are personally connected?
The most significant creative benefit when you make work that is close to you is that your work is honest, and that will show through.
In relation to the project, you write that: “Optimism is an interesting theme as it does not exist in an environment where nothing can and, or, has gone wrong.” Do you think that a person’s capacity to be optimistic, and the extent to which they are, is dictated by their experiences?
I don’t think it is always that black and white, but I do believe that one’s experiences play a significant part. If you have never experienced hardship, it is more comfortable to take things for granted and harder to put things in perspective.
What does optimism mean to you?
Trusting your gut.
You wrote about wanting to avoid a straightforward journalistic approach in relation to this project. Why were you keen to create a more poetic and romantic interpretation of optimism in this context, and how did you endeavour to achieve this creatively?
While my work highlights social issues, I am not looking to make news-images. That doesn’t interest me.
I wanted to empower and represent the people of St. Maarten in the best way. In my eyes, that would not work if they were busy rebuilding, so I chose to only photograph them during their time off.
What were you looking for when you were selecting subjects – both individuals and landscapes – for your series? And what were people’s responses to the project – how did they react to having their pictures taken?
A few of the people I chose to photograph were individuals that I knew personally from previous visits, or acquaintances that were introduced to me. I did, however, specifically look for families. I also photographed a lot of men; I heard that there was a shortage working in construction on the island since there was so much work to be done.
The landscapes I photographed just happened intuitively – somewhere I drove past or a location I took a portrait of. Though I did hear about the yacht named Dreams, which was destroyed. I often heard that people found it important that someone was documenting St. Maarten and giving the locals a voice, particularly marginalised groups.
What are the greatest challenges that you have faced as a photographer both creatively and professionally? How do you stay optimistic?
The greatest challenge is finding a balance. I graduated almost two years ago, and I am still figuring out how to achieve a balance between my personal work and commissioned projects.I think the best way to stay optimistic is to stay off Instagram and only take on projects that either fascinate or scare you.
What do you want viewers to take away from the series, and what did you gain from creating it?
I want my work to challenge stereotypes of the Caribbean – this is important in all of my work. But mostly, I want to create awareness for the smaller islands. I gained a lot of insight for future projects focusing on the Caribbean, and its conflicted relationship with tourism. I am currently planning on going back to St. Maarten this year to continue documenting the island and its people.
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