Each year Jacmel, a coastal town in southern Haiti, holds pre-Lenten Mardi Gras festivities. Troupes of performers act out mythological and political tales in a theatre of the absurd that traverses the streets, rarely shackled by traditional procession. Mardi Gras in Jacmel is light years away from the sanitised, corporate-sponsored, tourist-driven carnivals around the world.
There appears to be no set time, route or parade. One can wander a deserted Sunday afternoon street and turn a corner to find a surreal masked man in drag with a snake necklace carrying a mini-me baby doll with an arm for a leg. Around another corner you might find a group with suits and bag masks on their heads made of kitten material with a board proclaiming ‘Down with the fat cats’.
It is a carnival of flâneurs and meanderers, rather than marchers and processors. The characters and costumes partially betray their roots in medieval European carnival, but the Jacmellien masquerades are also a fusion of Vodou mythology, ancestral memory, political satire and personal revelation.
I started this project in 1995, and after seven or so years it became apparent to me that there were many underlying narratives. As a photographer, I was always keenly aware of the difficulties and responsibilities in representing Haiti. Since the slaves’ revolt, Haiti has been a mythological epicentre for racist and colonial anxieties. And many of these encoded mythologies are reproduced and replicated through the visual representation of Haiti. Looking at my increasingly iconic photograph of the Lanceurs de Corde, the two men with the bulls horns, one of the first images I took of carnival in 1995, I was aware of how easily the wildly exotic image could feed into a deep well of stereotype.
While I could not eradicate all the power inbalance inherent in photographing another culture, or overturn the 200-year cultural demonisation of Haiti, I could at least find strategies for ‘damage limitation’. So I returned three times to Jacmel in a calmer, more tranquil, non-carnival period and collected the oral histories of the people making and wearing the costumes – the stories behind the masquerade. I tracked down the leaders of the groups and asked them to tell me their tales. I wanted to restore the narrative to the photographs and reduce the level of spectacle.
Carnival has become a potent vessel for a people’s telling of Haiti’s history. As Henry Ford once said, ‘History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we made today.’
What we find on the streets of Jacmel at carnival time unravels this statement with acerbity, threat, imagination, grace and wild surrealism.
The whole event is swirling around in a miasma of warped historical retelling. This is the kind of history-telling that would be making Henry Ford’s palms a tad sweaty. And so it should.
Leah Gordon is the author of Kanaval: Vodou, politics and revolution on the streets of Haiti, published by Soul Jazz Publishing