Voodoo originated in Nigeria and developed throughout the French Empire during the 18th century, practiced by West African peoples who were enslaved. The Code Noir, drawn up by Louis XIV to outline the policing of slavery, explicitly forbade the open practice of all African religions. It dictated that all slaveholders were to convert their slaves to Catholicism within eight days of their arrival in Saint-Domingue, the French colony known today as Haiti. This task proved to be impossible, yet nevertheless, it led to some voodoo practices taking on aspects of Catholicism via a process called syncretism. The use of altars and candles became common in Haitian voodoo to disguise the nature of the rituals, while some Catholic saints were re-imagined as voodoo loa (spirits). As such, the modern day voodoo practiced in Haiti has developed an aesthetic of its own. Frequently portrayed in the West through imagery of death, darkness and, at its most erroneous, even Satanism, Haitian voodoo remains an often misrepresented and misunderstood religion. The French photographer Corentin Fohlen has developed a close relationship to Haiti and its inhabitants. Shown here exclusively for the first time, his latest series, The Voodoo Child, sheds a new and unclichéd light on both the cultural and religious elements of voodoo. We spoke with Corentin about his experiences in Haiti and how he went about shooting this excellent body of work.
When did you first pick up a camera?
I received my first camera at the age of 11 from my uncle. It was an automatic camera, very simple and rather low quality. My first serious camera was a reflex when I started to learn more about photography during my college years.
How did your passion for photography develop?
The first time I started to photograph in earnest was as a way to collect souvenirs from my girlfriends. In my opinion, this is the best reason to become a photographer! A few years later, when I decided to make photography my profession, I wanted to start out as an artistic photographer, before discovering photojournalism and covering news stories such as demonstrations and political events in Paris.
Is there anyone in particular, who has influenced your photography?
The first photographers who influenced me were Martin Parr, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Sebastião Salgado and James Nachtwey. The second wave of influences on my work were Alex Webb, Jeanloup Sieff and portrait photographers from the Pasco and Co agency.
When did you first travel to Haiti? And what was it about the country that kept you coming back?
I traveled to Haiti for the first time just after the earthquake in January 2010. I spent just 10 days there but I came back and revisited the island 3 times during that year to cover the elections, the cholera epidemic and various other humanitarian topics.
What is the concept behind this series?
The concept is simple. I wanted to create a series of paired images, which work together to present an artistic vision of the various facets of voodoo. This includes the people, objects, spaces and art.
Why did you choose to use the diptychs?
For me, the diptych is a useful way to present the two faces voodoo. The pairings illuminate both the cultural and religious elements of voodoo.
Haitian voodoo is often portrayed in a very clichéd way. How did you decide to approach this topic so authentically? What did you want to show that often goes unnoticed?
When I decided to begin working on a series focusing on voodoo, I wanted to do so in the same way that I had conducted my previous work in Haiti. I wanted to show an alternative vision of Haiti, far removed from the stereotypes and clichés, that seem to always accompany this country. I wanted to avoid the aesthetic of darkness and death that has become synonymous with the religion and focus more on the creativity and artistic visions at play. I wanted the series to have a more modern, contemporary feel to it. With all this in mind, I chose to shoot Haitian artists, who use voodoo symbols in their art.
What is it about Voodoo that fascinates you?
To be honest, I’m not really interested in the religion or the faith, as you might say, because I don’t believe in any god. I’m fascinated far more by the creativity and the wealth of colors, forms, objects and paraphernalia used for the ceremonies.
Your beautiful series certainly explores the relationship that exists between the people and their objects. How come you decided to focus on this aspect?
When I thought about how best to represent the sense of creativity alive within the world of voodoo, I decided to use the same visual language as I had previously used for my portrait series “Karnaval” (published as my second book on Haiti in 2017 by Light Motiv editions). However, rather than working with a studio set up, as I had when covering the carnival of Jacmel, a little town in the south of Haiti, I wanted to shoot portraits in situ. It was important for me to show the “mambo” – female voodoo priests and “houngan” – male voodoo priests in the heart of their temples.
Can you tell us a little more about your process, while shooting this series? How did you find the people you photographed? Where did you shoot them? What were the biggest challenges you faced? And how did you overcome them?
I traveled throughout the entire country, searching for voodoo temples. These places are marked by many flags leading up to the temple. When I saw, by chance, these flags, I stopped to explain my work and ask the people there if they were open to being photographed. I shot them in the same space as the “Badji” – communion alter is. I asked my friend and driver to hold my studio flash. It was not so easy to shoot in these spaces because the rooms were all narrow and dark. The biggest challenge was to manage the light and the lack of space.
Which of these images is your favorite? And why?
This shot is my favorite because of the colors and especially the picture on the right. It looks like a painting. There is also a very rich culture of painting in Haiti and for this reason many painters have developed a unique from of Haitian art, which has been popular on a global scale since the 1950s.
Which camera did you use to shoot this series and what do you consider the advantages of this set up?
I shot with the Leica M-P and a 35mm Summilux lens and sometimes a 28mm 2,8 ASPH. I have used this camera for many years now for all my different projects, such as reportage, portrait, art photography or hard news coverage. I like the size and the discretion of the camera. For many people, the look of the camera has something old-school about it. It’s certainly not as aggressive as the big reflex cameras. This makes it so much better for building a relationship with the people you are photographing.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
I hope to continue to work in Haiti as much as possible in the coming years. I plan to go back to the island in July and continue my work on voodoo. Perhaps I will be able to do a new book in 2020!
What advice would you offer to anyone looking to improve their photography?
If you want to become a professional photographer then it’s important to forget the fact that it may not be possible. You need to work hard and think about photography all the time, everyday: eat photography, drink photography, live photography.