It started with a joke. Paolo Woods was living in Haiti at the time, and his colleague Gabriele Galimberti had just received a letter from the Italian tax authority to pay up the 50 percent (!) owed for his lucrative previous year. They were looking at a map of the Caribbean, spotted the Cayman Islands, and Galimberti quipped, “I should go there and hide my money!” Chatting, they realized that tax havens were a mystery to them, and they resolved to explore them in depth photographically. Over the next three years they managed to shoot, often against steely resistance, the 12 shelter destinations in The Heavens series — along with scenes that suggested the local residents’ abject conditions. The implied moral critique of have-not contrasted with have-way-too-much is nothing new, but Woods and Galimberti took an untraveled road and went deeper. In high-gloss photos of businesses and lifestyles that benefit from the clandestine international network of banking subterfuge, they shed light on state-of-the-art wealth retention. To get in the proper frame of mind, they began by creating their own mock company, an LLC registered in Delaware (complete with an annual report), that emerges as a conceptual piece resonating with satirical, subversive moxie.

Predictably, for every granted access they were able to finesse (reminding one of Christo’s elaborate bureaucratic machinations), Woods and Galimberti were refused dozens of times elsewhere. The world’s most secretive financial oases were not easy targets, and their series on tax havens is laudable as much for its makers’ tenacity and cunning as for its aesthetic virtues. But difficult obstacles, extended over long periods, are part of what gets Woods interested in a project; he was a war photographer in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has worked with journalists on investigative pieces such as the impact of the Chinese in Africa — “very difficult because they tend to be very press-shy, to put it mildly,” says Woods. He also covered Iranian society during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, and the “failed state” of Haiti. Clearly, he’s a master of prying open closed doors.

What is captured, or at least alluded to, in fairly straightforward large-format vignettes accompanied by explanatory texts, is an inscrutably complex and globally interwoven system of tax avoidance, as sanctioned and enabled by local governments. The photographs often adopt the stylistic codes of advertising and corporate self-promotion; not lost is the irony of placing a glamorous sheen on an ugly reality. The images in The Heavens, taken as a whole, may not indict any individual as “a bad guy,” but they do succeed in reinforcing the most cynical view possible about the extraordinary lengths the world’s .01 percent will go to conserve their assets and power. But as Woods makes clear in the preamble sequence of images of well-known brands, we as consumers (and in many cases, as stockholders) are all complicit in this tilted, ultra-high-stakes game.

The Heavens is on view at Les Rencontres d’Arles through September 20, and will be on view at Fotofestival in Mannheim, in the Kunsthalle, from September 18 through November 11. The Heavens: Annual Report is published by Dewi Lewis Publishers. http://www.theheavensllc.com/

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More from the Photographer Spotlight Series:

ALICE WIELINGA

MARKUS BRUNETTI

JERRY UELSMANN

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SERIES PRODUCER / MICHAEL KURCFELD