As a photographer, my objective is not so much about achieving technical or artistic perfection, but more about capturing images of significance. I believe ‘significance’ can be found in a single image, or throughout a body of work. What makes photography significant in my eyes is a revelation of place, culture, humanity and ideas that most of us have never been exposed to.
This philosophy – and an unlikely turn of events – led me to the island of Haiti, the scene of my most recent photographic expedition. The journey started years earlier.
I was described as a problematic child. As a 14 year old growing up in Israel, it was suggested to my parents that boarding school might set me right. One of my classmates was a beautiful and quietly spoken girl named Sharona. She was way out of my league, and I rarely had spoken to her. Meanwhile, boarding school did nothing to change my attitude, and I was expelled two years later. That would be the last time I saw or heard from Sharona for five decades.
In 2010 a magnitude 7 earthquake struck Haiti, claiming over 160,000 lives. In the days that followed I was reading an Israeli newspaper article about Israeli citizens who survived the disaster. Sharona’s name appeared as one of the citizens found safe and well. Sharona’s father was a famous peace activist, which prompted public interest in her wellbeing. The newspaper reported she had married a Haitian man and was living there when the earthquake hit. Out of curiosity I looked her up on Facebook and made contact. To my surprise, Sharona remembered me and our school years in great detail, and I soon discovered that we now had much in common. When I shared my photography work Sharona encouraged me to visit Haiti, describing the people and scenery as ‘photographic heaven’.
Not long after, I found myself on a flight from my home in Melbourne to Haiti, with little idea of what to expect. I was about to enter the world’s oldest black ex “slave” republic and the second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere behind the United States (having achieved independence in 1804). Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, as I was about to see with my own eyes.
I arrived in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince looking forward to experiencing the last day of a local carnival. But instead of smiles and celebration, I discovered a very different mood. The previous day a carnival float was struck by an electric cable, causing up to 50 deaths – some through electrocution and many others through the panic that followed. The final day of the carnival turned into a mourning march. I had only a few hours in the streets to observe that life still went on amongst the sadness. Here in one of the poorest places on earth, I discovered more ‘life’ than I have found in some of the world’s richest cities.
Taking my camera out into the streets for the first time was a bit overwhelming. The streets were filled with food stalls and activity, contrasting with the many people sitting on the pavement, simply doing nothing or sleeping. The air was filled with loud noises that are difficult to describe, or pinpoint where they were coming from. The temperature was uncomfortably hot and humid.
I must admit to feeling on edge at first, as the travel books I had read gave the impression there was danger around every corner. I had a local named Franzie accompany me on my first outing with the camera, which helped me relax and stay in the moment.
The next day I was out on the streets again, trying to orientate myself and absorb the rhythm of the crowd. I found myself falling in love with the action, soaking up the sounds of street vendors trying to sell their goods to any and every one that passed them, whether by car, bus or on foot. The locals were not always willing to be photographed, and needed a bit of friendly persuasion or a few dollars. Haiti’s city streets are its heart, and it is beating fast.
At night the streets of Port-au-Prince were dark, punctuated by bright spots of light around the food stalls. The contrast of the light and the sound of music spilling out of the nightclubs, created a magical atmosphere in the streets.
At first I was looking for unusual subjects, but I quickly realised that everything that seemed unusual to me, was an everyday scene in Haiti. I was drawn to the subjects I found personally interesting, avoid clichés and trying not to fall into the trap of repeating myself.
Haiti is known for its widespread Voodoo following. 90% of Haitians are Catholic and 10% Protestants, but virtually all Haitians are also Voodoo practitioners. I found the Haitian Voodoo ceremonies to be mesmerising – both as a photographer and as part of my personal fascination with distinctive cultures.
The word Voodoo represents what practitioners believe are the mysterious powers that control the world. The role of a Voodoo priest is to serve the spirits. Voodoo is not a religion – rather it is a physical and spiritual experience. The Voodoo practitioners believe in a higher entity that cannot be communicated with, therefore their prayers are directed to ‘lower’ spirits.
The spirits are divided into 21 ‘nations’ and each is related to a different Catholic Saint. Each spirit nation is related to a ‘family’, and each family has a different description such as military, women, agriculture, fertility and death. There are 401 spirit families. For example, there is a spirit called Au’aga, the spirit of the thunder, hurricanes and other natural disasters. In Haiti, the spirit of Zagozi is the representative of this spirit.
According to Jean-Daniel (a friend and a Voodoo priest), when entering a door at the temple you must knock three times, to let the spirits know you are entering. The next step is to say “honour” and wait for a reply of “respect” before lighting a candle. Then one must pour water on the floor three times to represent the four basic elements: earth, air, fire and water.
According to Haitian beliefs, people need the spirits, and the spirits need people to survive. Voodoo is not a religion of God – it is a connection between us and God. There are a number of dates in the year when Voodoo ceremonies are always held. One special day is the Saturday after Easter, where followers open the temple, and wake up the spirits that did not work during the holiday. There are also Voodoo ceremonies for initiations, where the initiated rediscover some elements of their being. For example, one goes through an initiation when becoming a Voodoo priest, or when starting a career as a drummer, or to become a ruler. To become a priest, a number of initiations are required.
Voodoo is not a religion, but there is a religion in Voodoo. It is a way of life and a philosophy with strong elements of religion, including a strong belief in the existence of spirits. For instance, when drinking coffee, it’s a Voodoo practice to drop three drops on the floor, in memory of their fathers, the spirits and the earth. It is also customary to light a candle in memory of their fathers.
The Haitians claim that their Voodoo culture is the richest in the world. The Haitian Voodoo is a mix of many Voodoo practices of many African tribes, along with influences of Greek and European mythology. Some Jewish, Islamic, and Christian rituals include elements of Voodoo.
Jean Jacques Dessalines, the founder of independent Haiti, became the country’s first emperor in 1804. He tried to abolish Voodoo and drove the practises underground. After the passing of Jean Jacques Dessalines the Voodoo practises started flourishing again.
Voodoo doesn’t have a ‘Satan’ or even bad spirits, although there are violent spirits, just as there are violent people. The spirits are the reflection of humanity.
Art is on display around every corner of Haiti. Most of the paintings displayed in the streets are colourful, decorative and unsophisticated – but also an important representation of the Haitian art narrative. Haitian art appears naïve but is full of tradition, based on African roots with strong Indigenous American and European influences. It is an essential representation of Haitian culture and history. Much of the street art features visual descriptions of daily life in the city.
Haitian paintings are generally divided into two categories: naives and moderns. This division has been widely accepted in Haitian arts. Why the distinction? The naive painters are known as primitives, and it’s been said that their style lacks artistic education and discipline. The modern painters have come to view the term ‘naif’ as a negative connotation on the evolution of Haitian paintings. However, the term naive has more to do with independence from academic tradition, and it is a style that suggests artistic innocence.