This impressive collection of black and white photographs brings together the visual spectacle of the Haitian carnival with the politics behind the drive to reclaim Haiti’s past.
Unlike other carnivals, the one in Haiti is seen as an opportunity to commemorate its painful past of slavery, revolution, tyranny and poverty.
As Leah told Socialist Worker, “I went to a carnival over seven years ago – it was so unique and amazing, I kept going. I realised it wasn’t pure spectacle but a retelling of history with costumes and narrative.”
Haiti was the first black republic – emerging in 1804 after a revolutionary slave revolt.
“Eventually I went to Jacmel, a city in southern Haiti, outside of carnival time,” said Leah.
“I tracked down the leaders. People work together in groups to produce costumes and tell different stories – about the slave revolt, the politics of the day, the recent US invasion and stories about voodoo and mythology.
“It’s quite difficult to photograph in Haiti. You can do a lot of harm – the way in which images of Haiti are produced and used carry a huge amount of colonial baggage.
“There are images of two men with bulls horns – that can easily be misinterpreted. I wanted to break that down by getting the oral histories that actually explain what it is about.”
A group called the The Lanse Kòd – The Rope Throwers – use costume to help depict the story of slavery in Haiti.
Salnave Raphael performs with the them. He told Leah, “We have 100 guys, all strong and fit.
“We are making a statement about slavery, and being freed from slavery. This is a celebration of our independence in 1804.
“The cords we carry are the cords that were used to bind us. Although we know that slaves never wore horns, this is about the revolt of the slaves, and we wear the horns to give us more power and to look even more frightening.”
Leah says, “In Britain, with our school syllabuses and the state telling us our history, I think we block the tradition of people retelling their own stories.
“Whereas the carnival performers in Haiti retell the bits of their history which are important for them.
“It is part of a wider tradition of people presenting their history in their own voices.
“Haiti has a very rich culture. People use literature and art as they travel on foot telling stories.
“They use songs and music to convey history. You feel like everyone is involved in some way.
“When I first went to track down carnival groups I encountered a bourgeois woman attached to the mayors’ office.
“She said, ‘Why would you go and ask these people about their costumes? They won’t know a thing.’
“She said she knew it all. The arrogance of the bourgeoisie in Haiti is incredible.
“She was responsible for producing a more sterilised version of the carnival.
“A week before the carnival organised by the people, she makes the performers parade in front of the bars owned by the rich of Port-au-Prince.
“There is a real discomfort. They know they’re making money for someone else and that is the biggest threat to the Jacmel carnival.”
The earthquake in Haiti in January this year was the first time that anyone can remember that the carnival didn’t take place. But the tradition is resilient.
Lendor James takes on the role of Papa Sida, “Father Aids”.
He told Leah, “I see many young people die of Aids… I want to get a message to the youngsters of this town that before having sex they must put on a condom.
“Some people seem to think that Aids is made up by politicians, so I do this Mardi Gras performance to help people understand that it’s a reality.
“My going out on the streets helps people to see that Aids is not a lie invented by politicians.”
Leah Gordon’s perceptive work sheds light on a country and a people we often only hear about through disasters and racism.
In doing so she shows us people who are fighting to tell their own history – in their own voice.
Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti is published by Soul Jazz Records, £19.99