Few religions are as misunderstood and as steeped in often-cartoonish misapprehension as Haitian Vodou. Countless people around the globe, shown images of a ceremony, might confidently say, “Yes, that is Vodou.” But very few, when pressed, could coherently discuss the core tenets of the belief.
For photographer Anthony Karen, who has traveled extensively in Haiti over the years, Vodou is at once a fascinating subject and — in a very real sense — the gateway to his vocation.
“About 13 years ago,” he told LIFE.com, “I was in a difficult, transitional point in my life. Out of nowhere, I felt Haiti calling to me. I traveled there, and saw two Vodou ceremonies in person. On the same trip, I discovered my passion for photojournalism.” Here, LIFE.com presents previously unpublished pictures of a June 2011 Haitian Vodou ceremony, along with Karen’s insights into so-called “marginalized” groups and his own work as a photographer.
see more — Inside Haitian Vodou
While Karen is obviously talented, I have to say that there is little here to challenge most viewers’ preconceived ideas about Vodou (as metonymic of Haiti). The very same images have been circulated since the earliest literary and photographic representations of Haiti emerged in the nineteen-‘teens: upturned eyes indicating possession (although the theological mechanics of it are almost never addressed); fire juxtaposed against darkness, suggesting that Haiti remains a ‘jungle’; the drinking of blood in orgiastic delirium; knives pressed against heads and tongues; writhing Black bodies, underground and on the ground; partially exposed breasts and bands of vaguely sinister-seeming women singing untranslated songs. Nothing novel, except the angles and brands of equipment employed to execute the images.
Some of Karen’s slides are highly graphic scenes of sacrifice—which, while probably not staged for Karen’s benefit, are also sacred, and I believe are remarkably exploitative in the context of a mainstream North American publication. It was perhaps Life’s decision not to include text explaining what is happening in the photographs in any specificity, but it is also the photographers’ responsibility to his subjects to provide context and refuse the use of material that is only being included for its potential to titillate viewers. Quotations from Karen only stir my disquiet:
“A goat in distress or pain can sound like an infant crying,” Karen says. “Obviously, it can be really disturbing. I’ve seen so many ceremonies by now that I’m aware of the process, and know when it’s coming. Still, in all my years of witnessing Vodou rituals, I’ve never seen a sacrifice as intense as the one that I documented in June. When five people, in a frenzy, began to suck the blood out of the goat’s neck, I had goosebumps racing up my spine — because of what I was witnessing, and because I was in the perfect spot to capture it with my camera.”
It’s typical for the scholar or artist engaged with Vodou communities to project the “goosebumps racing up [their] spine” onto their subjects. No surprise there. Yet Karen’s purported concern is to ‘capture’ this event in order to illuminate a marginalized tradition. His project as a whole merely threatens to further malign it by showing that the stereotypes are indeed ‘true,’ because one of ‘us’ has been ‘there’ and witnessed the ‘reality.’ ”It’s raw, and it’s primitive,” Karen says, with what Life would have us think is the authority of a practitioner. While Karen seeks to disarm critique by pointing out the extent of his participation in rituals and esoteric knowledge—“I won’t even get into the cleansing ritual preformed on me involving the blood of a chicken”—his statements chiefly serve to legitimate his presence in what he recognizes are exceedingly ‘intimate,’ ‘vulnerable’ settings.
The last photo in the series is of Karen (a self-described “big white guy”) with a Haitian child, with text that painstakingly enumerates his praiseworthy deeds as a volunteer for different organizations. This is not sarcasm; I do admire his commitment to the groups listed. I’m afraid, however, that this parting shot only reinforces the dichotomy between ‘irrational’ Haitians and the American ‘saviors’ forever depicted as coming to the rescue. This may be the most pernicious trope of all, formulated as the U.S. first used to invade and occupy Haiti between 1915 and 1934, then to intervene militarily and diplomatically throughout the twentieth century. It’s unfair to lay all of this at Karen’s feet, since it’s not clear he understands the pictorial and ideological history he stumbled into. But I’m left wishing he would have realized the artistic potential of showing that “people tend to have everyday, general conversations” about Vodou. That would have been something new.
all of this, thank you. i thought the same thing when i saw the photo series.