|© Paul Kwiatkowski, untitled, from the series "Haitian Vodou"|
Paul Kwiatkowski: During the summer of 2011 I traveled to Haiti. At the time I was going through a difficult period in my life. I wanted to feel dislocated. Haiti seemed like the perfect place to escape myself. That said, I didn't exclusively want to just feel distracted. I also wanted to glean from the resilience of a country still raw in the process of rebuilding and evolving.
Growing up in South Florida, Haitian culture was a familiar presence. I had always been drawn to the excitement and uncertainty of being in a country like Haiti. Once my friend and fellow photographer Anthony Karen offered to introduce me to a rarely seen Vodou pilgrimage in the northern part of the island, I had to go.
On our way to the Vodou cave, I saw a woman flailing her arms on the side of the road. Further down the road was a shoe and beside the woman was a circle of men standing around staring at the ground. Our fixer* stopped the car so that we could investigate. The men were looking at a young girl laying face down in a ditch. She’d been hit by a car. Whoever had done it had driven off. My first reaction was to touch her, but because of fear of disease, I couldn't.
Anthony and I wrapped our hands in grocery bags and made a stretcher out of burlap. After stabilizing her head and turning her over, Anthony tried to wash the blood off of her face, but there was little more that could be done. She had aspirated. Eventually a passerby in a pickup truck came to help. After we placed her onto the bed of the pickup, I can’t explain why, but on impulse I videotaped her face. After she passed, all I could do was stand there. My hands trembled so hard, I had to stop recording.
Later that day we arrived at the cave. Inside, participants were making their rounds to several stations. I remember tripping out on the echoes of drums and people shouting in tongue. The floor was covered in mud, plastic bottles, blood, urine, water, excrement, tattered cloths, rocks and papers. At the time, I was too rattled from the incident earlier to approach strangers about taking photographs.
Eventually my eyes adjusted to the smoky darkness and I saw these boys facing a wall of prayers, candles, photographs of the deceased and offerings. As sunlight poured in from above one of the boys stretched his arms out as though he were welcoming it in. The way that moment and entire day unfolded was overwhelmingly intimate. I immediately felt at ease realizing what an honor it was to photograph something sacred. Each time I see that photo I think back to how unique and complicated life can be. All around there's an unavoidable sense of beauty and devastation.
*Editor's note: A "fixer" is someone who helps a photographer in an area that they are not familiar with; services may include translation, driving, help navigating the culture, introductions to local connections, suggestions on where to go and where not to go, etc.