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Students Behind the Lens: Kari Thorleifsson

In September, Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico. Kari traveled there this year to document not only the devastation, but also the hope that has emerged as the island rebuilds.




By Jenn Gidman
Images by Kari Thorleifsson

Recent Tamron Student Showcase winner Kari Thorleifsson is an Icelandic freelance photographer who just received his BFA from the Parsons School of Design in New York City in May. But it was two trips to Puerto Rico this year—one in January, one in March—to detail the devastation after Hurricane Maria in September that really offered him the opportunity to try his hand at documentary photography.

"My wife is half Icelandic and half Puerto Rican, and much of her family lives there," Kari says. "Some of her relatives live in the San Juan area, while others are in the more mountainous regions in the center and are still without electricity as a result of the storm. I thought it was important to show what's going on there, and I'm putting together a zine project based on the photos I took during my two visits."

On his trips, Kari took the Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 VC G2 and the SP 70-200mm F/2.8 VC G2 lenses. "Throughout my short career, I've been told by many people more experienced than me to shoot on primes—to pick one and stick with that focal length," Kari says. "But I find it impossible to settle on one focal length. These lenses—especially the 24-70, which I use for 90 percent of my work—offer me the versatility I crave. The sharpness of my images with both of these lenses is impressive, especially when I make 20x28 prints, and the Vibration Compensation feature is amazing. I can just feel it taking over, especially right around dusk, which makes me more comfortable shooting at shutter speeds as low as 1/20th of a second."

The hurricane exposed a lot of corruption and poor civil planning on the island, Kari says. "Much of the infrastructure has been in place for decades, some since the '50s," he says. "A lot of it was in moderate to bad shape before the storm, so fixing it will be that much more difficult a task. Plus, the most recent official death toll from the hurricane was said by the US government to be 64, while a study that came out recently has suggested that number might actually be in the thousands. But because people have that lower number stuck in their heads, resources for the island may not be a priority anymore, making things even more challenging."

However, despite the dire-sounding consequences from Maria, Kari also wanted to make sure to illustrate things on the island in a more positive light. "That's why I decided to break my zine project into two categories, titled 'Destruction' and "Construction,'" he says. "Yes, the hurricane happened, but it doesn't define the people there, and life goes on. They're struggling, but they will bounce back. People are working hard toward rebuilding bridges, businesses, and homes. Photos of places like this that are devastated by weather events tend to be on the negative side in the mainstream media—I wanted to show a different side as well by documenting the recovery efforts."

Kari's approach was to showcase the vibrant colors in Puerto Rico, and also to keep in mind that the project was for a zine, meaning he'd have to make a conscious effort to create more vertical images so they'd look better on the zine's page. "I'm used to shooting on the fly and being spontaneous, just shooting, shooting, shooting and then editing what I like afterward," he says. "But for this project, I had to visualize the photo beforehand more to see how I could capture certain scenes as verticals rather than horizontals."

In addition to showing the devastation on the island, Kari also wanted to focus on the people who'd lived through this cataclysmic event. "Out of all the countries I've been to in my life, Puerto Rico is one of the most welcoming ones, where you can start up a conversation with almost any stranger," he says. "I'd structure my day so I wandered around some of the towns or in the countryside for most of the morning and early afternoon, and then from about 4 p.m. until 7 p.m., I'd seek out plazas and festivals and other gathering spots where I could find people who were willing to be photographed."

When Kari returned to Puerto Rico in March, he sought out a street vendor he'd taken a portrait of back in January in the town of Utuado. "I wanted to give him the photo I'd taken of him," he says. "I found where he was, selling chicken spears, gave him his photo, and then took some more of the guys grilling chicken. This photo of a man in a baseball cap was actually of a customer. He was reluctant to have his picture taken at first, but then he agreed. I tried to take most of my portraits somewhere between F/4 and F/5.6, like in this one, so you could still see some of the environment they were in, nicely blurred out in the background. It was important for me to set the scene of where they were."

© Kari Thorleifsson
24-70mm (70mm), F/5, 1/250th sec., ISO 320
Click image to view larger

Kari was determined to visit some of the hardest-hit towns. "It was in the coastal towns and in the mountains where most of the damage was," he says. "In the mountains, the rainfall created a lot of landslides. And along the coast, the oceans hammered many of the towns."

In one coastal town where Maria made landfall is where Kari had the opportunity to take a portrait of an elderly resident. "I was talking to an American who lives there, and he was explaining what the town went through," he says. "In the early morning hours on the day the storm hit, the water was 5 to 6 feet high in the streets. This woman is his neighbor, and she hid out in the second story of her house, just waiting it all out. We couldn't communicate very well—she spoke no English, and my Spanish is broken—but the lighting was phenomenal and she agreed to let me take her picture."

© Kari Thorleifsson
24-70mm (50mm), F/5, 1/2000th sec., ISO 320
Click image to view larger

For his trips around the island to detail the devastation, Kari tried to show the disorientation through his imagery. "I came across this house in Mayaguez, and the way the picture faces is correct, in relation to the horizon: The house is halfway collapsed into the lagoon on the beach," he says. "I took this photo in January, and according to some locals, it had been empty since right after the hurricane. The people who lived there had relatives in Florida and just up and left. And this wasn't the only picture like this that I took. There's a lot of real estate and properties, many houses and sheds, that were damaged and then just abandoned."

© Kari Thorleifsson
70-200mm (70mm), F/11, 1/60th sec., ISO 250
Click image to view larger

On that same beach taken the same day, Kari detailed a tiny flicker of hope emerging from the wreckage: a Puerto Rican flag. "A lot of the land in this area has canals, creeks, and wetlands, and there's a big river not far from here, too," he says. "The river flooded during the hurricane due to the severe rain. Plus the water from the ocean was being pushed inland from the force of the storm, and the rainfall was pushing the water down the mountains out to the ocean, which created a terrible situation. Many of the houses and roads in this area were completely destroyed."

© Kari Thorleifsson
70-200mm (70mm), F/10, 1/320th sec., ISO 320
Click image to view larger

In the town of Juncos, Kari was able to show the enormity of the damage island-wide by showing just a tiny part of it stacked up in a metal recycling facility. "This site had been taking in metal debris from homes and industrial sites around the region," he says. "Mountains and mountains of metal waste, roofs and windows and whatever other building parts ended up there—and what you see here was just a fraction of what was there."

© Kari Thorleifsson
24-70mm (44mm), F/9, 1/250th sec., ISO 500
Click image to view larger

The town of Manuabo was also slammed directly by the hurricane, and the boyfriend of Kari's wife's cousin was from there. "I knew when I went in March I had to go," he says. Five minutes after he arrived, he drove past a two-story funeral home that had lost its second story; the men inside were toiling away to fix it back up. "I spent about an hour with them, just photographing them as they worked," he says. "This is my favorite picture of the bunch, because it's sort of different than the other ones. I feel like it's more layered, showing various relationships and emotions in the people in it."

© Kari Thorleifsson
24-70mm (29mm), F/5.6, 1/400th sec., ISO 400
Click image to view larger

Perhaps the most poignant photo in Kari's mix was taken along the south shore of the island, in a town called Ponce. "I was walking through the streets when I saw this sign that just said, 'Internet,'" he says. "I didn't even know what it meant. It didn't appear to be advertising a service or asking if anyone had any Internet. Ponce had been hit pretty hard by the storm, and for days and even weeks afterward, the phone towers and Internet were out. And so locals were trapped in this situation, sometimes not even knowing if their neighbors had made it out of the storm OK, and yet the whole world was watching: news crews, government officials flying in on helicopters, drones taking pictures and videos. Yet the people there had no clue what was going on in the world around them. This picture says everything about how I felt about the situation. There was a lot of uncertainty in those days right after the storm."

© Kari Thorleifsson
24-70mm (66mm), F/14, 1/400th sec., ISO 400
Click image to view larger

Photographing everyday slices of life juxtaposed with the rebuilding process was another one of Kari's photographic goals. "There are a lot of stray dogs in the area, and because I grew up in a home that was kind of a DIY dog shelter, I gravitate toward them," he says. "There was a dog hanging around these construction workers as they were rebuilding a bridge that had collapsed in the storm, and they were trying to get the dog off the worksite, so they kept throwing things into the water for it to fetch. Placing the dog in the foreground draws the viewer's eye to my main subject, but the background tells a more complete story of what's going on in that image."

© Kari Thorleifsson
24-70mm (62mm), F/9, 1/250th sec., ISO 400
Click image to view larger

That lighter tone epitomizes exactly the feeling Kari hopes to set in the "Construction" section of his zine. "I want my viewers to see these pictures of Puerto Rico and smile a bit as well," he says. "There's a quote from historian Lawrence Levine, and it stands true for the people of Puerto Rico: 'One of the more elusive and difficult historical truths is that even in the midst of disaster life goes on and human beings find ways…of rising above their circumstances and participating actively in the shaping of their lives.'"

What lifted Kari's spirits in Puerto Rico, and helped inspire his pictures, was the people there adhering to exactly that philosophy. "For the most part, there's optimism and hope I didn't expect to see from a place hit like this," he says. "They're looking forward to new systems and new infrastructure to be implemented. There's a resilience among family and friends, especially in the smaller towns, that people around the world aren't seeing in the mainstream media. I hope my photos can help depict what's going on there."

To see more of Kari Thorleifsson's work, go to https://www.karibjorn.com/.