Sex, death and slaves: Welcome to Haiti's horror carnival

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Blood and black magic flow through Haiti's history – as photographer Leah Gordon discovered when she went to Mardi Gras in the port town of Jacmel...

Leafing through Leah Gordon's book of bewildering, disturbing and thrilling black-and-white photos, one stands out. Two boys stand before the camera, each wearing rough eyemasks, their naked upper bodies smeared with something grim-looking, large horns bound to their heads and rope in their hands. They look, to be frank, terrifying.

The photo was taken in Haiti, at the Mardi Gras carnival of Jacmel, a port on the south coast, and at first glance it plays up to the country's voodoo clichés; but look a little closer – the boys seem at ease, proud even, to pose for their portrait. That they do so is down to the dedication of Gordon, a 51-year-old British photographer. For 15 years, Gordon has been plunging herself into the rich, weird world of the Jacmel carnival and returning with images such as this and many more, which feature in her new book Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti.

For those of us unfamiliar with either its medieval European origins or its altogether different manifestations in the further reaches of Latin and South America, the word "carnival" evokes dancing policemen on the streets of Notting Hill, or the flamboyant, technicolour parades of Rio de Janeiro. But the carnival (or "kanaval" in Haiti's native creole) of Jacmel is quite radically different: a spontaneous, popular and mysterious mixture of theatre and masquing, voodoo and history that reaches a climax in this former French colonial port on Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. '

For a few wild days, boys and men career round the crumbling, picturesque by-ways of Jacmel, often in marauding groups, wearing home-made costumes or in sinister, eye- popping drag. Some outfits have meanings that extend back centuries, others are entirely idiosyncratic and personal to their creators. It is no mere street party, then, but rather a carnival by and for the largely impoverished people of Jacmel, which tells, in its own way, the tumultuous history of Haiti, from the slave rebellion that freed the country from its French masters in 1804 to this year's catastrophic earthquake, via the bloody dictatorships of the Duvaliers and much else besides.

And for her introduction to this intoxicating brew, Gordon has Jill Dando to thank. In 1991, Gordon was watching a Holiday programme sequence about the Dominican Republic: "Suddenly [Dando] said, straight to camera, 'I must warn you the Dominican Republic shares the island with another country called Haiti – do not go there by mistake, because Haiti is a country of dictatorships, military coups, death, black magic and voodoo.' I thought, all that and hot weather? Within a month I was on a plane to Port au Prince." She discovered the Jacmel carnival in 1995, and has been photographing it ever since; but it wasn't until 2003 that she decided to learn more about its traditions and participants.

The result is the book, which mixes photography, several essays by other contributors and the oral histories of carnival participants, which Gordon herself recorded. And it is in these brief interviews that Gordon affords a glimpse into the extraordinary world of Jacmel carnival. Salnave Raphael, for instance, is one of the Lanse Kod (a Creole rendering of "lanceurs de corde" or "lassoists"), described above, who roam the streets with their ropes and horns. "We are making a statement about slavery, and being freed from slavery," he tells Gordon in his account. "The cords we carry are the cords that were used to bind us. The blackness of our skin is made with pot-black crushed charcoal, cane spirit and cane syrup mixed with water. [On] the streets we stop at the first crossroads and at the blow of my whistle we all start doing push-ups, to show that though the slaves suffered they are still very strong. We wear the horns to look even more frightening... in carnival people like to be scared."

The Lanse Kod vie for pre-eminence with other large, equally striking groups such as the Zel Maturin, who enact a battle between St Michel and various spectacularly dressed and bewinged devils, both Christian and voodoo, for the souls of the faithful. Yet perhaps the most bewitching figures are the lone performers, such as Andre Ferner, who appears as Madame Lasiren. Lasiren is a voodoo marine spirit whom Ferner and his ancestors have honoured for generations. "The baby I carry in my arms is the child of Lasiren, who is called Marie Rose... Because Lasiren is a fish," says Ferner, "she has to disguise herself as a woman to be at Mardi Gras. Each year I change the disguise and fashion a new baby. To get inspiration, I go to the place where the big beasts live, and they instruct me to do Mardi Gras. I have been doing this for 18 years."

"I really like Madame Lasiren because [Ferner] is just an old-fashioned Haitian spiritual voodooist," says Gordon, who believes that for many of its participants, carnival isn't just the highlight of their year, it's the source of their social status. "I never asked what their jobs were. It's a difficult question in Haiti, because so many people don't do anything. You don't really get judged so much by what your job is, and that's why things like carnival and creativity are so important."

Other characters which appear equally obscure are in fact pointedly satirical. Until his recent death, Eugene Lamour played a character called Chaloska, in a bicorn hat, with grotesquely enlarged lips and teeth. The name refers to Charles Oscar, a notoriously murderous Jacmel police chief lynched in the early 20th century. Lamour first took him on to the streets in 1962, coinciding with the autocratic outrages of President François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Ever since, the presence of Chaloska in carnival has coincided with popular disgust at certain corrupt figures in the Haitian establishment.

Political commentary, voodoo street theatre, religious pageantry – Jacmel carnival has been juggling these myriad roles for two centuries. But whether it can survive in the form so vividly captured by Gordon is in doubt. Already there is pressure to introduce parades and more music, which, according to Gordon, is largely an attempt to control and commercialise the event, with sponsorship, and licensed food and drink concessions. Jacmel carnival is unusual because, unlike other Haitian carnivals, it has so far resisted this fate.

As for the devastating earthquake of January this year, Gordon is consoled that none of her oral-history subjects was killed; nonetheless, she worries how much of the town's evocative but vulnerable architecture has survived : "What happens to all that history and memory when the buildings collapse?" Instead of carnival in February this year, there was a muted procession to the town's cemetery. Next year, says Gordon, there will definitely be a carnival in Jacmel. "People keep asking me if these [people] that I worked with are going to start doing earthquake-related work, but it doesn't really interest them. It sort of interests the outside world more," she says. "Haitians tend to laugh at crises; not in a horrible way – but they've had a lot of them."

'Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti' is published by Soul Jazz Publishing (souljazzrecords. co.uk), priced £19.99. An exhibition of Gordon's photographs opens tomorrow at Riflemaker, London W1 (tel: 020 7439 0000, riflemaker.org).

Additional reporting by Nick Frost

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?