A chat with photographer Benjamin Eagle, who was in Haiti shooting for his project "The Spirits of Jacmel."
Voodoo, generally, doesn't have the best reputation. Turn to your left and ask the person sitting next to you what voodoo is about; it's likely he'll tell you it has something to do with pin dolls and hurting people. Or zombies. Or rituals where you wear skull necklaces and sacrifice voles.
But—unsurprisingly, given that most of that information is garnered from TV shows and shitty horror films—there's a lot more to it than that. Vodun originated in West Africa, where practices and rituals revolve heavily around spirits that govern the forces of nature and humanity. Other belief systems with similar names—Dominican vudu, Cuban vodu, Haitian voodoo—share many similarities with vodun, but they tend to be syncretized with Christianity to create a slightly different take on how things are done.
In Haitian voodoo, there is a divine creator, Bondye, who rules over an army of spirits, the loa, kind of like God and his angels in Christianity. The loa you're most likely to have come across in film or TV is Papa Legba—the guy in American Horror Story with the top hat and red eyes—the spirit who can facilitate chats between loa and mortals.
Voodoo works its way into the daily lives of many Haitians, but the loudest and most visual display of its importance takes place during the annual Haitian Carnival—a festival held from January to February, in the run-up to Mardi Gras. The photographer Benjamin Eagle went this year to document the street processions for his new project "The Spirits of Jacmel." I had a chat with Eagle about his time there.
VICE: What drew you to voodoo in Haiti?
Benjamin Eagle: After brief encounters with voodoo ceremonies in West Africa, I started to research other countries where voodoo was practiced. It quickly became apparent that voodoo is embedded in the culture of Haiti, and I was curious to get out there and meet the people. Voodoo, to me, seemed an extreme form of expression, and I was intrigued to see how this translated in Haiti.
What made you want to go over there and photograph it?
I think, as a documentary photographer, you're always looking for a project that interests you personally, and for me, voodoo is fascinating. It is something that is celebrated and expressed in certain countries—yet, in the West, is very much taboo. Being brought up in Europe, voodoo is seen to be a morbid topic, but in Haiti, it's the opposite.
What challenges did you face while shooting the project?
Haiti can throw up all sorts of challenges. Firstly, the tourism infrastructure is non-existent, so getting from A to B means having a driver and planning ahead—you need to know where you can and can't go. As safe as I felt Haiti to be, anyone caught in the wrong place at the wrong time could potentially run into trouble if he or she were unlucky. I was caught up in riots when trying to get to the airport to return in London—these aren't uncommon.
Shooting the carnival itself was a whole other thing; you can't just walk up and pull your camera out, expecting people to dance. Haitians are proud and demand respect. You need to be welcomed as a photographer before taking the shot. I've definitely taken the odd waistline photo along the way, but in Haiti, I respected my boundaries and always approached anyone before shooting. Not speaking French or Haitian Creole was restricting, but it led to some amusing interactions.
Do you think cultures and forms of expression similar to voodoo are dying out elsewhere?
I don't think voodoo is one that could die out. Yes, it has its challenges, like other religions and cultures, but voodoo is deeply rooted in Haiti's history. Someone in Haiti said to me once, "Haiti is 30 percent percent Christian, 100 percent voodoo." And the fact that Carnival happens is proof that it's alive and kicking, and that it's being passed along to the next generation.
The photo of the guys carrying the coffin—can you explain that one?
This group was one I hadn't managed to meet before the carnival had started, so it was more of a snap shot among it all, so my knowledge here is limited. But the carnival is made up of hundreds of collectives of people displaying their own themes. This one was a team of men all painted in black tar, which they cover themselves in, head to toe. It was as if they were a funeral parade, and they frantically ran though the crowd, breaking into fights amongst themselves, occasionally dropping the coffin, and generally causing chaos for show. If you got caught up in the middle of it they treated you as their own, throwing you about like a rag doll.
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See more photos from Benjamin's project below: