19 Monday 19th July 2010

Since the earthquake in January 2010, a proliferation of horrific media images have reinforced an ongoing narrative of Haitians as victims – of disaster, of poverty, of corruption. Rarely is Haiti’s incredibly potent colonial history mentioned. Between 1791 and 1804 Haitians led the only successful slave revolt in history which resulted in the abolition of French colonial rule, and in Haiti becoming the first black-led republic. Photographer Leah Gordon’s stunning images of Haiti tell the story of a country intimately in tune with its past. We caught up with her at Riflemaker Gallery where her current exhibition, The Invisibles, is showing until September 10, to find out more.

You first went to Haiti in 1991, what brought you there?
I had just finished a postgrad in photography and had this feeling that I should go away somewhere. I was watching the Holiday programme, presented by Jill Dando. She was in the Dominican Republic expounding what a fantastic family holiday it would be. Then she turned to the camera and said, “I must warn you it shares the island with this other country called Haiti. Don’t go there by accident because it has dictatorships and military coups and black magic and Voudou.” Within a month I was on a flight to Port-au Prince.
What was it about Haiti that you found so inspiring?
I think at first it was the politics. It seems quite blurred now but at that time there was a lot of clarity. Aristide had just been inaugurated as president and he seemed to be a genuinely progressive, socialist figure in that region at that time. No-one had been let down by him. There was a sense that this dynasty of dictators was coming to an end and that good had prevailed over evil. Everything seemed incredibly positive.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about Haiti?
Haiti’s tagline is always ‘the poorest country in the Western hemisphere’ rather than ‘the first ever black republic in the western hemisphere’ or ‘the only successful slave revolt in history.’ The slave revolt was so potent and it has been written out of history. Instead a major demonization of the country was written in. If you mention Santería or Candomblé, which are African American religions practised in Cuba and in Brazil, people don’t immediately think of zombies, pins in dolls, sorcery but the minute you say Voudou all of those things are evoked. Haiti has become an epicentre of western colonial and racist anxieties.
Why did you choose the title The Invisibles for your current exhibition at Riflemaker Gallery?
The Invisibles is what Haitians call the spirits. This show is quite mixed but I think what links all the images is this idea of spirit. Photography has always has been excluded from religion. I think it’s interesting that all religions are hyper aware of the power of the visual arts. Religions embrace visual arts as much as they avoid them because our world now is so visual so there’s a stressful edge between religion and the visible and invisible.
Is it that tension in particular that attracts you to religion as a subject matter or something else?
Religion is a theme that I constantly deal with but I’m not religious. I would call myself a superstitious atheist. There’s power to whatever it is and it affects me but I don’t buy into any religious organisation. I did a project recently where I asked lots of atheists how they visualised the divine. Only one person said they didn’t have a visual imagination of the divine because they were an atheist. Everyone else came up with something and their ideas were so interesting: an egg, an ox’s heart, a line of cocaine, the sky. I was photographing these things, looking at how to represent the divine but you can’t represent the divine. In a way I’m more interested in what photography can’t show than what it can, although I do love what it can show.
To what extent do your photographic subjects participate in the construction of the image?
With the studio ones, there is total participation. The Kanaval ones are an interesting set. I use a 50 year old camera and a hand held light metre. I wander the streets holding this funny camera. I say, in Kreyòl, “do you mind if I take your photograph?” There’s a negotiation about whether I’m going to pay them, which I do. Then I hang around for ages, fiddling with the camera to get it right. It’s almost like we create a little photo studio on the street. They’re not carnival pictures. The photograph always takes place away down a side street.
So are these people who have wandered away from the main carnival?
This is the amazing thing about this carnival – it doesn’t have a parade. I mean when you think about it, who invented parades? The bourgeoisie. The real Kanaval is just a whole carnival of flâneurs and meanderers. It’s hard because you go out and go, “Where are they?” and someone says, “I think I saw a donkey wearing trousers down that way” or “I think I saw some winged people round there” and you have to wander the whole town looking for them. Now they are desperately trying to make them parade up one road where all the rich people can have stands. They’re going to sell drinks and have advertising. Once you parade, you lose the narrative. You just get spectacle.
Tell us a bit about the Ghetto Biennale in December last year.
In 2006 I made a film about a group of artists from Port-au-Prince called the Sculptors of Grand Rue. I got to know them well and in fact have been in a relationship with one of them ever since. We were talking and they were saying, “why don’t we get invited to biennales?” Then someone said “why don’t we bring the biennale to Haiti?” And we did. We had no funding. We just set up a website. Artists came from the UK, American, Tasmania, Spain, Italy and Germany. Everyone paid for their own flights and hotel. It had something very different. It had an energy I haven’t seen with art in Britain for ages, it was like a happening in the 60s – it was so wild. 
What effect has the earthquake had on the Ghetto Biennale?
When we started the Ghetto Biennale I never saw it as a development project, it was purely an art one, but two weeks later the earthquake happened and it seemed to just change itself. All the connections that had been made with the visiting artists became very strong. I’ve been invited to speak at Prospect which is the new biennale in New Orleans. It was created after the floods as a method of redevelopment. Our biennale was almost an anti-biennale. It wasn’t to do with tourism or development or any of those issues. I have to be careful because I don’t want it to suddenly morph into one of the ones where people go ‘this biennale brought in 3 million pounds and 20, 000 tourists to Haiti’. I’d end up being like the bourgeoisie with the parades. 

The Invisibles is showing at Riflemaker Gallery until Saturday September 10. Kanaval by Leah Gordon is published by Soul Jazz Publishing.


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