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The Embargo Issue

Fright Night

Before Haiti was catapulted into the news following the catastrophic earthquake in January that killed 230,000 people, it was mainly known for two things: Wyclef Jean from the Fugees and Voodoo.

by Bruno Bayley
02 June 2010, 12:00am
All photos © Leah Gordon 2010
Before Haiti was catapulted into the news following the catastrophic earthquake in January that killed some 230,000 people, it was mainly known for two things: Wyclef Jean from the Fugees and Voodoo (or Vodou, if you’re more culturally aware). London-based photographer Leah Gordon has been documenting Haiti for years, long before a natural disaster of this scale made it newsworthy. Her new book, Kanaval, for Soul Jazz Publishing, documents the often eerie and at times frankly terrifying costumes and clans that make up the Jacmel Carnival. Sadly, the southern coastal town of Jacmel was devastated in the earthquake. We spoke to Leah about the things she knows best: Haiti, carnival, and costumes.

Vice: Firstly, what inspired you to travel to Haiti? It’s not a popular holiday destination. 
Leah Gordon:
I first went to Haiti in March 1991 and have been back about 30 times in the last 19 years. I blame Jill Dando for my whole long love affair with Haiti. After a post-grad diploma in photojournalism, I was working as a van driver for the Communist party. I had a vaguely guilty feeling that I should be going somewhere. I had a friend in Hungary, but wasn’t too entranced by the idea, mainly as the climate seemed too similar to the UK. It was a snowy, miserable evening and the Holiday programme was on the television. I was only watching it with half an eye open. Jill Dando was expounding the joys of a family holiday to the Dominican Republic. At the end of the show she turned to camera and said, “I must warn you that the Dominican Republic shares the island with another country, Haiti, but don’t go there by accident. It has dictators, military coups, black magic, Vodou and death.” I thought: “All that and hot weather?” Within a month I was on a plane from Miami to Port-au-Prince, clutching a copy of The Comedians by Graham Greene, with no particular idea what to do on arrival except to ask the taxi driver for the Hotel Oloffson where Greene had set his novel.

Not a typical approach to visiting a country. Aside from the carnival, what other issues have you covered in the country?
I returned in 1993 to cover the military coup, doing photographic work for Amnesty International and the Guardian, on and off, until 1995. I started buying the exquisite sequined Vodou flags to sell in the UK, which opened up access to many of Port-au-Prince’s Vodou temples and communities. I worked with a music promoter to bring a Vodou group over to hold ceremonies in rave clubs in London and Liverpool.

I wrote a small book about Vodou and worked with women’s arts collective Orphan Drift to make a film essay called Lineaments of the Lwa. In 2006 I was sent to Haiti by the International Museum of Slavery to commission a sculpture to be a permanent exhibit in the museum. Consequently I met the eponymous Sculptors of Grand Rue, which culminated in my co-curating the Ghetto Biennale with them. This was the first arts biennale to be held in a slum in the developing world. Andre Eugene, one of the artists, has been my partner for nearly four years now.

Getting down to the book: when and where are the images from?
These photographs have been taken over a period of 14 years and are all from one particular carnival, in the small town of Jacmel on the southern coast of Haiti.

The group is called “les diables”, which is best translated as “the diabolicals”. This is an ancient group, the most involved with Vodou ritual. They start off in the cemetery paying homage to the ancestors with fire. At the end, they pile up their horn headdresses and burn them while dancing and singing.
Traditionally, what does the carnival celebrate? What religious aspects are involved?
All Caribbean carnivals have their roots in European medieval carnival. Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday” and is the last day of excess before Ash Wednesday and the fasting leading up to Easter. Before that, it was a time for rest and celebration while the agricultural land either lay fallow or at least needed little tending.

Compared with, say, more well-known carnivals like Notting Hill, these images, the outfits, and the overall appearance seem more eerie and less about peacock feathers and glitter. Why is that?
This carnival isn’t government-supported so everyone makes his or her own costumes with no funding whatsoever. Also, there is a recurring theme: some of the carnival is in memory of the slave revolt when the uprising slaves had to be fairly damned frightening on a low budget! In Haiti, people laugh along with and often even celebrate death, so imagery relating to death is far more prevalent there than in our society.

Are there different groups of costumes that refer to particular periods?
There are many different groups which all have leaders. Each group has a costume, set of gestures, narrative and street performance that have been passed down through the years. There are always little changes and refinements made year by year. Boss Cota, the leader of the Chaloska, always designs a new hat each year.

Have you been to Haiti since the earthquake?
Yes, I was asked to go back to Haiti to photograph for an aid agency five days after the earthquake. I didn’t get the chance to visit Jacmel but heard that it was devastated. Through friends I was able to find that none of the people who had contributed oral histories to the book had died. This was the first year ever that they did not hold carnival. Instead, in Jacmel, they walked solemnly through the town wearing black and finished at the cemetery where they remembered the dead.

Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti is out on June 21 through Soul Jazz Publishing. See more of Leah’s work in her exhibition, The Invisibles, held at Riflemaker, 79 Beak Street, Soho, London, from July 5 to September 10.

These are the Chaloska (Charles Oscar). They always wear military uniform and have a mouthful of false teeth made with bulls’ teeth. Charles Oscar was a particularly vicious military commandant in charge of the police in Jacmel. He died here in 1912. He was feared by all.

The main character is wrapped in a sheet and represents the phenomenon of zombification. He is led around town by a zombie master who has a whip in his hand and cracks it at every crossroads while the zombie mutters complaints.

A lone man in drag. In Kanaval, Don Cosentino notes in one of his footnotes to his essay that there is a history of transvestitism. According to Ady Jean-Gardy’s “Carnaval Histoire”: “Male transvestitism goes on throughout the 18th century, mercilessly mocking the effete lords of French nobility.”

Here we see a typical ghost. Many people dress as ghosts by imitating skeletons.

This is Yahweh. The guy is dressed in bull horns and a bull skin.

These are members of a tradition that always carry some kind of box—here, a cardboard coffin—that spectators can pay a small fee to peep inside.

Here they are again, looking slightly less menacing.

Photos: Leah Gordon