Behind the mask: Portraits of a Haitian carnival

View Gallery 8 Photos

For over two decades, Leah Gordon has documented the significance of ritual and identity in Haiti, honouring a community taking history into its own hands

“I wanted to do something more hopeful,” explains Leah Gordon, on the motivations behind a compelling body of work that documents Haiti’s annual ‘karnaval’ (carnival). Gordon began visiting the southern Haitian port town of Jacmel in the early ‘90’s. The British photographer was in the Dominican Republic just before, and a presenter on the television warned viewers to actively avoid Haiti, the nearby nation it shares an island with. Gordon became intrigued to understand why.

What she discovered about Haiti was in stark contrast to the intentionally macabre, racist narratives that had been previously pedalled at her. She learned about the Haitian revolution of the late 1700s, and the country’s historic uprisings against colonialism. “I became acutely aware of the way in which the visual representation of Haiti is part of a political strategy and package of demonisation by the West,” Gordon says. “Growing up in working-class northern England, I’ve always been interested in histories from below, what we’ve lost and what’s been lost.”

In discovering the rich traditions and radical celebrations of the country’s carnival, Gordon continued to return to Haiti for over two decades. “I wanted to show how incredibly powerful and creative marginalised, majority classes can be. I was burnt out on the politics… But of course politics is intrinsic to [the carnival]. Kanaval is the story of Haiti: everything is absorbed within it.”

© Leah Gordon.
© Leah Gordon.

Over two decades since Gordon first visited Haiti, the project is now on show at Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The photographer came to understand the carnival as a repository of commemoration, an act of remembrance for Haiti’s culture and traumas – its highs, and terrible lows. The resulting series of photographs document this mystical masquerade of resistance. A unique blend of political satire, Vodou mythology, ancestral knowledge and personal revelation, the images celebrate the vitality, devotion and strength of its people – past and present.

Flaneurs in paper mache masks, painted skin, and imaginative, surreal drag costumes make their presence felt, striking defiant poses while staring down the barrel of Gordon’s Rolliecord lens. Gordon process was intuitive and situational. She first chose her backdrops – “nice walls” – then waited patiently for her characters to come to her, akin to a kind of street-studio portraiture. Shot in black and white, her close-up portraits are enduring, searing and graceful. “For me, kanaval can be too colourful, the more I can strip the noise out of my images, the more the character speaks, allowing the history to come through.” 

Within these historical retellings we find mask after mask, but rather than concealing, they are revealing, story after story, through disguise and roadside pantomime. This is a people taking history into their own hands and moulding it into whatever they decide.

© Leah Gordon.
© Leah Gordon.

The photographer comments on the white gaze and the ethical challenges inherent in her practice: “You can never overcome the power imbalance when taking a photograph… But I think my process and portraits allow for more reciprocity, an exchange. I’m very aware that I am a white woman, it doesn’t matter if I’m working class or middle class, the level of culpability I have as a white Westerner is something I think about a lot.”

In addition to the photographs, many of Gordon’s Haitian friends and subjects have lent their voices to a series of oral histories also found in the exhibition. “It’s important to me that when my pictures are shown, the oral histories will always be there,” says Gordon. “I know you cannot control images, but you can create mechanisms that de-other a work,” she continues, “to try and make sure the work is read closer to the way you’d like it to be read”. 

As for the project’s legacy, Gordon’s hope is simple. “If I can help in any way to tell Haiti’s history, or to help people reach out and find that history, it’s a crucial part of revolutionary history, bound up in all of our histories. What I adore about the Haitian kanaval is they carry their history lightly, with performance, with panache, with poetry, it’s not weighted or heavy,” she says. “I think contemporary artists working with marginalised communities can really learn from this and should try hard to carry history a little bit lighter, like the Haitians so majestically do.”

Leah Gordon: Kanaval is on show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami until 16 April 2023. 

The film, co-directed with Eddie Hutton-Mills, ‘Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters’ is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.

Charlotte Harding

Charlotte Harding was born in London and studied Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths’ College. She has written for the British Journal of Photography since 2014 and writes about art and culture for a variety of publications.