Ponce and San Juan: Injustices brought onto the national spotlight due to a “natural disaster”
John Wesley Crespo
The image chosen for my image analysis assignment is a photograph of Puerto Ricans waiting in line for clean drinking water just four days after Hurricane Maria made landfall. This particular photograph is a good demonstration for my environmental justice project because it shows Puerto Ricans grappling with the failure of logistical distribution of resources on the island as well as the notion of true citizenship and value of worth as American citizens of a commonwealth illustrating disregard and abandonment during this time of great crisis. Hurricane Maria first made landfall on Wednesday, September 20, 2017. Throughout the devastation of the storm, people on the island were simply trying to survive and make it to the next day, as the infrastructure began to crumble day by day. This particular photograph of American citizens in Puerto Rico waiting in line to pick up water and other vital resources with their facial expressions, body posture, and infrastructure failing at such an alarming fashion demonstrates a sense of being left alone, without official guidance/direction in their plight to get much needed resources from a governmental agency. Furthermore, this picture sheds light on the disregarded aspect entirely on the behalf of Puerto Ricans, also at the same time being American citizens, where a sense of ‘abandonment’ is exhibited to not truly being “citizens” in terms of worth as Americans due to Maria’s destruction on the island.
The photograph was taken by Victor J. Blue for The New York Times which was included in the article entitled “FEMA Was Unprepared for Puerto Rico Hurricane, Report Says” written by Frances Robles on July 12, 2018. This photograph in question was meant to accompany the article in order to demonstrate the complete lack of competence in logistics, in terms of quickly distributing vital aid to those on the island; taking four whole days for this process to start rolling out. The intended audience are those who read The New York Times and are interested in understanding the situation on the ground just four days after Hurricane Maria left the area in which how could these American citizens be without these essential goods for this long. To find out more the photographer, Victor J. Blue, I went to his personal website, https://www.victorblue.com/. In the ‘about’ section, Blue describes his work and angle overall, where he takes photos that center on people. Most notably, Blue’s collection of work is “most often concerned with the legacy of armed conflict, human rights and the protection of civilian populations, and unequal outcomes resulting from policy and politics” where the last aspect is at the heart of this photograph.
Often times, Blue’s photographs are structured close up, capturing the intimate, real life moments of a person(s) being portrayed. In this case, the Puerto Rican people sustaining unequal treatment/aid from the mainland United States, where the question of ‘How was the United States’ deployment of resources in aid to those living in San Juan as well as to those living in Ponce truly a “success?’ is illustrated in this picture demonstrating a failure in deployment. Additionally, that of corruption in the local and state level on not appropriating these resources to those who need it the most is another injustice that can be extracted from his image. All in all, Blue’s pictures deals with people who often appear deep in thought or in emotion, not just with a plastered smile, as the one above is a key example of.
The main color that is apparent and continuously present in this picture is a dark gray. Specifically, the main road of asphalt/gravel these people are standing on, waiting to receive water and other vital goods from FEMA taking place in a police station just four days after Maria impacted the island. The color of gray sadly, represents dire times, death, negative emotions overall, which is most significant because the issue on the minds of these citizens is that of negative emotions, perilous circumstances that have befallen onto them due to no fault of their own. The color of gray can also represent the institution itself, in this case FEMA and that of police, where this road indeed leads into the complex that holds this aid, presided by state and local officials whereas the dirt road next to it is brown colored, signifying Puerto Rico in of itself; its innocent citizens. In essence, this clash/intersection of colors between dark shade of gray and that of brown illustrates the dichotomy of world between FEMA, officials, and police to that of the innocent citizens. Clothing color on the people here is bright for the most part (orange, red, blue, pink, yellow, and white), illustrating hope and lively persona of its wearers in terms of great crisis in getting relief. Thus, this clash of colors consisting of brown vs. gray demonstrates corruption in the local and state level on not appropriating these resources to those who needs it in a timely, well executed manner, where the “police” here fits that of gray color road leading into the station and who have been responsible in various corruption scandals on the island intersecting that of the dirt brown road next to it. In the end however, it has been four whole days after Maria left and Puerto Ricans has not even received basic aid (water) further shows this incompetence to even corruption like in holding back these resources of aid as well as lack in effective deployment in its totality.
The contrast of spatial relationships between that of the foreground, middle ground and background demonstrates the notion of true citizenship and value of worth as American citizens of a commonwealth illustrating disregard and abandonment during this time of great crisis. Notably, the foreground is of a little boy, with a striped bright colored shirt, signifying lively, hopeful persona. However, his facial expression is looking away from the complex in a downward angle, arms tied behind him holding tied up empty gallons. This in fact illustrates sadness, a sense of abandonment so to speak to those in Puerto Rico from those like the greater United States responsible and sole duty is aid in a readily and effective fashion to its people as this was not so but far from it. The people, both men and women here, are standing around waiting for admittance to the FEMA station for aid and all seem to wearing the same type of casual clothing, something one would wear when on errands or on the weekend. They see to be around the same age, middle aged adults except for the little boy in the foreground who for the most part are mature and focused on the task at hand. Their facial expressions however are that of the little boy, head down, gloom looking, one man in fact in a crouched position, head down.
The flurry of activity in the foreground of the photograph serves to starkly contrast with the lack of activity in the background of the photograph: the mountain ranges and that of wilderness. The lack of American flag or Americana in general in terms of no officials guiding, answering questions, to even comforting demeanor is present. This suggests that the leadership and that of aid as symbolized by the gray road is lacking because there is literally no leader or organizer that is present directing the distribution of the water and other vital aid. The American flag or any American iconography symbolizing the nation as one, unified entity is lacking entirely. The qualities that one associates with the flag, such as freedom, access to resources and prosperity does not match the concerned and tense atmosphere in the photo by these citizens. Thus, the notion of ‘true’ citizenship and value of worth as American citizens of a commonwealth illustrating disregard and abandonment of not being taken as a sense of priority during this time of great crisis is presented here with the spatial relationships and body expressions of those in the fore and middle grounds, where Blue captured well here in this photograph.
Furthermore, the people are who are present in the picture seem to be working together at an equal level, as concerned citizens, holding empty gallons, buckets, containers to be filled. However, the emptiness that exists next to the line of citizens other than that one little boy zoomed in the foreground symbolizes the lack of proper and adequate leadership, especially when dealing with the ramifications of the crisis of this magnitude. The fact that there are no displays, signs, or even governmental automobiles serving in a humanitarian capacity in this picture but rather a parking lot of cars in the background belonging to the citizens in line are examples of abandonment, disregard, touching upon this idea of “worth” as true American citizens in a commonwealth.
One of the takeaway messages that is presented here in this photograph is the lack of leadership present visually and metaphorically in this Hurricane Maria crisis where in the end, Puerto Ricans are left alone, without official guidance/direction in their plight to get much needed resources from a governmental agency, disregarded entirely. San Juan and Ponce are one of the largest cities in Puerto Rico, in one of the most prosperous nations in the entire world. Thus, this lack of access to resources as basic as clean and pure water as well as its deployment to the people, the corruption aspect that plays into it to finally the notion of “worth” as American citizens of a commonwealth paints a painful picture for the citizens of Puerto Rico in their struggle of sheer survival post Hurricane Maria.
WORKSHEET 1: Image Analysis
Follow the steps in this worksheet to help uncover details, relationships, and, in the end, meanings embedded in an image that you might miss if you only focus on the image’s content. The formal analysis is the important first tool for interpreting images in the environmental humanities.
FOCAL POINT: Write down and describe the first site in the image where your eyes are drawn to.
Drawn to the little boy with striped color shirt in the foreground, head down, holding onto 3 gallons roped together
DIRECTION OF MOVEMENT WITHIN THE PICTURE FRAME: Note where your eyes are drawn to next, traveling from one place to another across the image. See if you can create a narrative from the string of visual scenes and relationships among component parts. What might the progression of visual elements mean?
Progression from the little boy –> to the people behind him –> to the rest of those in line –> to the buckets/gallons that are empty in preparation of hopefully being filled with water
SPATIAL RELATIONSHIPS: Look to see if there are any spatial divisions in the image that reflect different zones of activity.
Foreground – little boy
Middle ground – line of people/parking lot of cars
Background – mountain area landscape [wilderness/open]
COLOR: Note which features share the same color. Which ones are brightest, darkest, and dimmest. Can you make any judgments about these differences, including how the elements may be understood in relation to the others?
Street color – dark/heavy shade of black (dichotomy of world)
Brown color – dirt road next to it
Clothing color – bright for the most part (orange, red, blue, pink, yellow, etc.)
SCALE/SIZE: Compare the sizes of the various visual elements. Larger size generally correlates with greater importance.
Zoomed size with little boy looking away from crowd downward direction.
CONTRASTS: Note how some visual elements play off each other. These contrasts serve to accentuate differences and/or exaggerate the separate qualities of each. Conversely, little contrast can communicate likeness or similarity.
Color clothes are bright colored for most part contrast to that of black street/asphalt and brown roading next to it. Black street color is clearly apart from brown road color, exaggerated for sure.
INDIVISUAL ACTORS & DETAILS: Write down any other details that don’t seem to fit a pattern yet seem important for understanding the image.
No automobiles near people
ABSENCES: Can you think of something that is conspicuously missing from the picture?
Police, officials (FEMA, state or local) directing the people, reassuring, answering any questions that come up is absent entirely.
VALUES & MEANINGS: List some of the values you think the image maker is expressing through these visual relationships and elements. Try to state a takeaway message or two that you can then verify with other sources.
Puerto Ricans are left alone, without official guidance/direction in their plight to get much needed resources from a governmental agency, disregarded entirely. Abandonment from USA, Puerto Ricans not truly “citizens” in terms of worth as Americans
WHERE TO GO NEXT: List other sources you can turn to find out more information about the image.
FEMA or official statistics in aid/resources/cost that was sent
Logistical information on how truly these items were transported or lack thereof.
citizen, class, energy, corruption, infrastructure, racism