Leah Gordon's Voodoo Carnival


Written by Emily Hobbs
08 Monday 08th December 2008

To most people, Carnival means music, sequins, feathers, glitter, girls in minuscule costumes and men in drag, but for the residents of the small coastal town of Jacmel in southern Haiti, Carnival, or Kanaval, means (unsurprisingly for a country where the principal religion is Voodoo) scaring the shit out of each other. And men in drag.  

There's processions of children in rags and chains, blacked-up ‘slaves', representations of mass murdering prison guards, and home-made costumes adorned with animal teeth. What the Haitian carnival lacks in glitz and glamour it makes up for in home-grown surrealism and metaphor.

British born photographer and documentary film maker, Leah Gordon, has built an extraordinary body of work exploring the fascinating traditions and culture of Haitian communities since her first trip to the island in 1991. In this exhibition at the Photofusion Gallery in Brixton she explores the characters and performers of Jacmel's annual Kanaval procession.  

Taking them out of the context of the event, Gordon's photographs focus on individuals from the various performance troupes in isolation. In a departure from her documentary style, her subjects are posed which in this instance affords them a kind of control over their own narrative - a conceit aided by the fact that beside some of the photographs are paragraphs of text taken from conversations with the performer featured in the picture.  

Their costumes and characters are steeped in history - the slaves' revolt and ancestral memories, inspired by folklore both local and imported from Europe and Africa. One troupe portrays the medieval Christian story of the ‘Wandering Jew'; condemned to walk the earth indefinitely after taunting Jesus on his way to crucifixion, he is depicted wearing a top hat and carrying a stick to beat away anyone who tries to get to close to him, so accustomed is he to being isolated. "It helps to be big", says one performer who boasts that he is the best person to play the Wandering Jew because he is tall and can scare the audience.  

One man captured front-on in a very fetching off-the-shoulder lace number explains how his gender-bending interpretation of the Devil as a transvestite came to him in a vision when he was working on a sugar cane plantation in the Dominican republic.  

If you've ever seen the impossibly cheesy James Bond film with Roger Moore, Live And Let Die, you'll be familiar with the Vodou aesthetic. It's actually very much in evidence in Gordon's photographs - there are definitely one or two Baron Samedis grinning back at you from the black and white medium format (perhaps unsurprising as the character's name is shared by  one of the Haitian Loa, or deities).  

Scary, satirical, sentimental and spectacular, Jacmel's communal creativity is vivid. Gordon's exhibition includes a short film depicting some of the characters from the carnival, which is compelling and at once nostalgic and contemporary. 


See more of Leah's work at www.leahgordon.co.uk

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  • Guest: bevcmorg
    Fri 26 - Nov - 2010, 13:42
    Hey Leah, I want to complement you about the great works you have done so far, documenting meaningful aspects of Haiti's history and culture. I am a Carnival Studies student at a tertiary level institution in my country of Trinidad and Tobago and came across your work which is most informative and educational. Your internet information is invaluable and it assisted me in my recent research on Haiti's Carnival. My perspective about Haiti has changed since then as I now have a profound love and more respect for the Haitian people. It's not pity but understanding their history and struggles from slavery to the present. Their recent experiences with natural disasters is in-explicable and unfortunate but I hope with god's grace they will rise. Thanks to you for the great job and I hope you never waver even when the odds are against you. I hope that Haiti's Carnival will continue to be your focus because people like you are an integral part of your on-line institution of higher learning. Once again keep up the good works. Beverly.