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.
In 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.
I 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.
Outside 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.
The 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.
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.
During 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.