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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. That they do so is down to the dedication of Gordon, a 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 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 , 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.
Within a month I was on a plane to Port au Prince. 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.