The first Vodou party I ever attended was a Gede party for a new Priestess, in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. I didn’t know who or what Gede was. I was buzzing with excitement and newness. A Vodou Priest, called a Hougan, had invited me to the party. When I entered that basement, it was obvious that all of the twenty or so people there knew each other. There were empty seats lining the basement walls. I sat down as close to the altar as possible and waited, smiling at quizzical looks. What I didn’t know then, but know now, was that during that evening and into the hours of the morning, the basement would be visited by many Spirits both Haitian and African – thus beginning my involvement with the Vodou community.
The book Vodou Brooklyn represents one year of my five-year involvement with the Vodou community. In 2006, I started attending Vodou ceremonies. In 2007, I started following Mambo Marie Carmel to her ceremonies. During the 2008-2009 season, I documented all of the five major public ceremonies performed by Mambo Marie Carmel, photographing the ceremonies from beginning to end. I used chronology of the Vodou religious calendar as the organizing structure for the book.
The book primarily focuses on Spiritual possession, the personalities of the Spirits and the relationship between the Spirits and the community. By focusing on what happens in this single transformed basement hosted by the same Mambo, the reader becomes personally involved with the people in the community through seeing them from ceremony to ceremony. The photos show intimate details of the Spirits in possession and the reaction of the community.
Each chapter of the book focuses on one specific ceremony. The photos of the ceremonies are put in chronological order to give the reader a real sense of the narrative arc of a ceremony. Each photo was chosen not only for it’s aesthetic qualities, but also because it helped to tell the story. I also used my photos as the launching point for gathering additional information from the community. I showed the photographs to Mambo Marie Carmel Moise and other community members and asked specific questions about the action in the photo.
The text of the book pieces together this narrative of the ceremonies.
Vodou ceremonies are very complex calculus of interwoven relationships between the Spirits, varying references to Haitian history, and different manifestations of the Spirits themselves. All the textual information in the book is distilled from interviews with Marie Carmel or another Vodou participant. The text retains the flavor of the community and explains the meaning of Vodou worship through their words.
The Haitian Vodou community says that the Spirits love it when you share your wealth with the people. The more you share with the people, the more the Spirits will give back to you.
Originally appeared on Ethnographic Terminalia.
Stephanie Keith has a degree in Anthropology from Stanford University, certificate in photojournalism from the International Center of Photography, and received a Master’s of Photography from NYU in 2003. Since then, she has worked at many newspapers including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Christian Science Monitor and The New York Daily News. Her personal work explores themes of religion, immigration and pop culture. Her photo series about Egyptian Soap Operas for Islamic Ramadan was published across Europe and the United States including an essay in the New York Times “Week in Review”. It was also a solo show at the American University in Cairo. Rolling Stone published her series about Evangelical teenagers called, “Young and Pious”.
Her latest series about Vodou in Brooklyn has been exhibited in at the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Brooklyn Public Library, the Safe-T Gallery in Brooklyn, published in the Village Voice and developed into an audio slide show for American Public Media’s “Speaking of Faith” program. The Caribbean Studies Press has just published her photos about Vodou as a book, entitled: “Vodou Brooklyn: Five Ceremonies with Mambo Marie Carmel.” For the book, Stephanie is photographer, author and designer. She has also recently shown her work in the Queens Museum in Queens, NY, the Caribbean Cultural Center in Manhattan and at the Powerhouse Gallery in Brooklyn. Her work combines Anthropological research and art practice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two children.