Haiti’s Vodou pilgrimage captured by Paul Kwiatkowski

Haiti-VodouThe walls were covered with prayers, candles, photographs of the deceased and offerings. As my eyes adjusted to the smoky darkness, I tripped out on the echoes of drums and people shouting in tongue.

Paul Kwiatkowski is a writer and photographer living in New York City. He is currently finishing his first photo essay and novel ‘And Every Day Was Overcast’, which is about growing up in the 90s amongst the swamps and strip malls of South Florida. During the summer Paul traveled to Haiti for two weeks. He went to explore the country and to document a rarely seen Vodou pilgrimage. These images are from this journey and all captions are written by Kwiatkowski.

Haiti-VodouIn Port-au-Prince, my driver refused to go past the barricaded walls of Cité Soleil, regarded as the most dangerous slum in the Northern Hemisphere. Since the earthquake last year, over 4,000 inmates had escaped Port-au-Prince’s surrounding prisons. After destroying the prison’s criminal records, many of the inmates returned to their sectors in Cité Soleil and regained control. Signs of them were all around: basketball courts without hoops, relief tents peppered with bullet holes. Nothing, not even the wall separating Cité Soleil was spared.

Haiti-VodouI was searching for homes with red flags affixed to the roof. The flag meant that the home is also a vodou temple. Inside, I meet a Hougan, a priest. Although I don’t speak Creole, I got by with clumsy hand signals and fragmented French. I sure as fuck would never let a stranger with a shitty camera inside my home, but I was grateful that he did. I forgot the Hougan’s name but he was friendly, proudly flaunting his makeshift temple, religious tchotchkes and children. Their hair was turning blond from malnourishment. They wanted to touch the tattoos on my arms. I wanted to be friendlier, but I was afraid of germs.

Haiti-VodouOutside of Port-au-Prince, I met a vendor at a vodou market who recreated scenes from Christian mythology with dolls. He also had baby doll saints stuffed inside glass bottles. Looking back, I wish I had bought one.

Haiti-VodouThe pilgrimage began at the mouth of the cave. Inside, participants made their way to several stations. The floor was covered in mud, plastic bottles, blood, urine, water, excrement, tattered cloths, rocks and prayers made out to the dead.

Haiti-VodouThis is a store. I have no idea what they were selling. Tons of street vendors had similar setups.

Haiti-Vodou On my way to the northern part of the island, I saw a woman flailing her arms on the side of the road. Further down the road was a shoe and beside the woman was a circle of men standing around staring at the ground. Our fixer stopped the car so that we could investigate. The men were looking at a young girl laying face down in a ditch. She’d been hit by a car. Whoever had done it had driven off. My first reaction was to touch her but because of fear of disease, I couldn’t. My friend and photographer Anthony Karen and I wrapped our hands in grocery bags and made a stretcher out of burlap. After stabilizing her head and turning her over, Anthony tried to wash the blood off of her face, but there was little more that could be done. She had aspirated on her own blood. Eventually a passerby in a pickup truck came to help. After we placed her onto the bed of the pickup, I can’t explain why, but on impulse I videotaped her face. After she passed, all I could do was stand there. My hands trembled so hard, I had to stop recording.

Haiti-Vodou Umm, what the fuck can I say about this guy? He was alone most of the time and very quiet, but was cool with me taking his picture.

Haiti-VodouDuring animal sacrifice, Hougans often slipped into possession. When it happened, their eyes flipped backwards and they spoke in tongues, like they were fervently arguing with someone I couldn’t see. At times, it appeared to be both violent and sexual.

Haiti-VodouThis guy is a scribe. He writes prayers to the dead.

Wonderful Machine

  • Bryan Richardson

    Some of the pictures are great but Mr. Kwiatkowski’s captions exemplify a lack of any deep (desire for) understanding or respect of Haitian/African-derived cultural beliefs, and risk being read as dismissive and, at best, latently racist. His snide comments fail to exhibit any empathy for the devastation recently visited upon the people of Haiti in 2010, and his hesitation to help the young girl beside the road for fear of “disease” (read: HIV/AIDS) perpetuates other deeply ingrained stereotype of the Haitian people.

    Please don’t get me wrong, I understand this is a forum to exhibit great photographic work, but there is a responsibility that comes with the art/act of documenting cultures other than our own; one that must take into account historical perspectives and who they shape our perceptions as the observer, and therefore effect the meaning of the art produced.

    In short: lose the captions.

  • Bryan, I don’t owe you shit. My only obligation is to take photos, and be honest with myself. The captions are meant to place the audience in my perspective. A photographer is not a substitute for a teacher or anthropologist. I have no intention in demystifying “Haitian/African-derived cultural beliefs” for you.

    If you need to be spoon-fed “respectful” information about another culture perhaps you pry yourself away from your computer and go visit. Be the philanthropist you so clearly know how to define.

    And far as the young girl is concerned, at the moment I was afraid of having blood on my hands and I was scared. That said Anthony and I didn’t hesitate for a second to try and save her when others did nothing. I didn’t decide tell that story to gain empathy. It takes balls to admit fear and guilt in a life or death situation and that was how I felt. Do you think you would’ve acted differently in that situation? Would have made you feel better that you didn’t feel negative or dismissive as a child died in your arms?

    Haiti is a complicated and unique culture. It’s a both beautiful and devastating country. That was all I wanted to capture with my images.

    xo pk

  • whitlove

    Bryan Richardson,
    I believe Paul K has, as usual, presented an art piece seeking to nakedly depict “the other” (as he does in his Florida project) while frankly admitting that the subject is seen and interpreted through the eyes of the author/photographer.

    A traditional method of representation intentionally creates a distance between each party and the “other”, including artist and audience.
    Paul K’s style of representation destabilizes the abstract pedestal on which visual art, poetry and journalism often objectify the subject. It fosters intimacy with the subject, artist, the piece as a whole.

    Makau Mutua, in his speech “Human Rights in Africa: The Limited Promise of Liberalism”, said that “Even though objectivity is the name of our game, we are nevertheless products of the legacies and heritages that have forged our identity and philosophical outlooks. In that sense, true objectivity is an academic fiction, for no one could be truly objective”.

    What is more offensive; to admit to and enter into conversation with the cultural assumptions and barriers influencing the work, or to present it as you suggest, without the captions, depending on the tired platitude that photographs can speak for themselves, as if they weren’t taken in a moment and time and space by a person whose presence in that moment effected the subject?

    Paul K creates a narrative with his photographs and words. By including himself as a character, candidly including his more private thoughts, he has circumvented the delusion of journalistic objectivity, presenting something which is able to encompass a poetry of the tragic, beautiful, ugly, funny, and most importantly human experience.

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