Documenting Spaces of Liberation in Haiti | Josué Azor
In the Beginning
I followed a friend’s encouragement and began to take photography as a serious profession, after the January 12, 2010 earthquake. Before the catastrophe, I was an amateur photographer. Professionals I met more or less put me on the path. From that time forward, I abandoned my studies in administration and other activities, and dove deeply into the craft of photography. Similar to many photographers, especially ones in Haiti, I experimented with photographing landscapes and natural beauty that were very much inspired by the Haitian countryside and provinces. Therefore, my photography reported my explorations: I was discovering the country and its rural environments I didn’t really know. Mountains, cascades, flora, their colors and the peasants I encountered awed me. The photographs I took reflected my reverence. They received a lot of encouragement. My photographic explorations about similarities between the people and nature in Haiti and in Brazil formed “Clin d’Oeil: Haiti-Brézil,” a 2011 exhibit at the Brazilian Cultural Center, in Pétion-Ville. Because of its success, I was further encouraged to more deeply concentrate on photography as my calling.
Next, I worked on a series titled “Roots,” black and white photos depicting scenes in Vodou lakou, chiefly Lakou Soukri on the outskirts of Gonaives. I was raised in a very Protestant family. I can say that it was anti-Vodou. So I didn’t grow up with the religious aspects of Vodou culture. I decided to attend Vodou ceremonies to make sense of the culture all by myself. I was enthralled. I took some photos. I decided to share them, which resulted in a 2011 exhibition at FOKAL (Fondasyon Konesans ak Libete) that was equally well-received. Exhibits abroad then followed. It is also worth mentioning that I sustain myself mainly by doing administrative work for institutions and foundations. You know, gagne-pains, breadwinning jobs.
Inside Gay Nightlife in Port-au-Prince
Most of my creative work comes from my reflections following conversations I had during meetings and workshops with other photographers. Based on those reflections, I decided to deepen an earlier experimentation with photographing Port-au-Prince at night. I gave the project a sense and shape. That’s how I entered into the work for “Noctambules.” My photography is very connected to me and my own evolution. It relates to what I know, and is equally related to my knowledge’s limitations. That was true for the Haiti/Brazil and Vodou exhibits. It’s just as true regarding my immersion into nightlife in Port-au-Prince. I gave myself some parameters and principles. The life at night that was provocative to me wasn’t necessarily that of a nightclub. I focused on the night that had a brute aspect, a night where I would meet people who perhaps I wouldn’t encounter ordinarily in the course of my life. That was one of my parameters.
I told a friend that my photography is really tied to my own evolution. Particularly regarding the gay world; I’m gay. I was too young and not open enough to the gay world at the time. Also, I wasn’t independent enough to explore it. So my friend told me about gay parties at night. That idea intrigued me. So I said: “ah, I have to go see what’s up with these parties.” It’s not as if I didn’t hear about them. Yet what I heard about were things that incited fantasies, places where you couldn’t go, and gatherings around the forbidden. I started going to the parties and I was fascinated. What first touched me and continues to touch me was what happened at parties that was different from outsider fantasies of those gatherings. I haven’t gone to parties where there was debauchery. There is definitely a certain freedom that some people give to themselves, to be somebody else or to be themselves, to express themselves normally in a way that they wouldn’t outside of these environments. There is ownership of their way of being in relation to those present at that moment. When you grow up with a lot of oppression, when you grow up with limited freedom of expression, there’s a way you have to be, there’s a way you have to behave. When you’re a young man, you have to be masculine. You have to be this and you have to be that. So when those prescriptions are a strong part of your life, and then you discover those spaces, for me I entered a space of liberation. I learned much from these spaces, about myself and my own life, how I model my life, and about the freedoms that I finally give to myself slowly but surely. Being in those spaces helped me a lot. Also, because I am a person who likes to share his experiences, I found it normal to share what I’ve seen. What was extraordinary is that sharing my experience was possible. The parties were private and happened in a very closed circuit. Simultaneously, the people were open enough to let me photograph. Then we rapidly established a sense of trust because finally, whether you want it or not, it is a community. This means that a community logic with a certain degree of sharing is present. We are alike, which enables a degree of sharing because members of the community don’t see me as a person prone to betrayal.
You also establish trust when you prove yourself in other areas—when you’ve been given some credit and you use that credit well. So the people I photographed saw that I came to document their spaces, but those photos were not used against the community or against what happens in the spaces. You then gain more credit. I gained more carte blanche to do the work. The more photographs I take, the more the community teaches me about what freedom is and what it is to take risks. I’m also learning so much about being and feeling proud of yourself, not only relative to accepting who I am but also regarding the many dimensions of myself. These discoveries drive me to publish the images I take under my name. They could be images that are buried in drawers and are published under a pseudonym. Obviously, I didn’t choose those options. To a certain degree, doing this project showed me that I’m not alone. That may seem odd. I feel supported by a community, even if I didn’t necessarily have strong friendship ties with many of its members. I’m not preaching in the desert. Similar to the ways the “Noctambules” series fills me with much courage, I am convinced that the photographs offer stories capable of giving others courage as well: to acknowledge that we have a life. We need to see and know that. We need examples. It’s important to show this joyful aspect of Haitian life. It’s also important that the creators and supporters of what has been shown are present and visible, and that there are discussions around the work so these documentations are not like “throwing a stone and hiding your hand.”
That said, I am not the only one who puts a face on the community. Not at all. But my work constitutes one more voice. Photography is one more medium that, until today, I didn’t see being explored in Haiti in this sense, especially considering the timid development of documentary photography in the society at large. A visit to our local bookstores shows that the majority of photography books showcase family photographs, landscapes, beautiful nature and vibrant colors. Those books mostly pay homage to the natural world and they don’t specifically target other aspects of people’s stories. Their photographs focus on the people’s wrinkles, and their beautiful smile and eyes. But where is the story and the person’s history? Documentary photography is not an established? practice in Haiti. Early in my career I became aware of the local tendency in the practice of photography. I’m working to understand how much photography can be a very powerful tool to tell our stories, to draw people’s attention to things that may be banal in an instance because they’re familiar with it, yet that carries an additional layer that is truly significant. That’s how I use this medium to speak about one of my communities.
When I first started going to gay evening parties, they were in high spirits. They happened more often than they do now. It was at a time when the LGBTI rights issue was a hot topic in Haiti. There was a massive mobilization of the community because we were in a post-quake context. There were a lot of foreign organizations here. You sensed more money circulating as a result. More Haitians were rubbing elbows with foreigners. This friction led us to be more opened to the foreigners’ worlds. For example, social media allowed us to observe what was happening in different ways. The context seemed to be open-minded, which was favorable to alternative openings for Haiti’s gay world. So it was all working smoothly. Gay parties occurred at people’s private residences. People were taking risks yet, at the same time, you didn’t feel they were taking big enough risks because there were no incidents. And then, in 2013, there was a violent and highly publicized incident. It caused the party circuit to slow down considerably, to stop even. It’s only in 2015 that things began again, timidly so. Between 2013 and 2015, the community was traumatized, and there was a legitimate reason for that. In addition to the incident, homophobic voices made themselves be heard more loudly. They were more present: they mobilized more and they protested more. This makes sense. Similar to the ways social media are accessible to the LGBTI community, they are also accessible to homophobes. Just as there are people who attempt to express who they are and their freedom, they are just as many homophobes who feel they have the right to express their homophobia and to express violence in fact.
And so it was. It was very complicated. It still is. Yes, it’s a little calmer now, and the community is coming back together in a sense. As you feel the violence calming down, one person tries to host a party so that others can try as well. You always need someone to take the first step. You observe what happens, and then you do yours timidly too. In terms of evolution, things got chilly and they’re slowly starting again. But they are starting again.
As in other communities, in all spaces that people share, there are rules that have to necessarily be established, some in implicit ways, others quite explicitly. You know you’re going to a space and you won’t be alone. There’s a way to communicate with one another. This will lead us to have a respect that, in any case, must be established. Otherwise the space cannot evolve, the space cannot be functional. Earlier I insisted on the ideas of expression and freedom for the following reasons. There’s respect at a gay party. The space is inherently alive for its duration. There aren’t really any fights. There’s an established program. There might be dance shows, etc. It’s extraordinary when you see how expression is possible and encouraged. And this is expression in the sense of who you want to be for yourself. You’re a man who comes to the party wearing the highest stiletto heels, the shortest skirt and the flashiest makeup. It’s not a problem. It has happened––because I am a person who likes to observe––that there are smiles directed at the person. But I feel people and their smiles are not hypocritical. People are surprised because they are surprised. It’s perfectly natural that they’re surprised because it’s not something they’re used to seeing. They’re expressing a surprise. Similar to the person wearing the stiletto heels and the short skirt, they too express their feelings. They also express their masisi. This is what it means when a person is surprised and expresses that openly. If there are remarks, they happen openly quite often, and they’re rarely negative. The jokes are not mean-spirited. You feel that response is accepted. That’s why the spaces continue to function. They can evolve, and that’s why people are able to go in any manner they wish. What also is a source of knowledge is how at times people accept themselves and talk comfortably about gender fluidity when a person comes to the party dressed as “a man” and then, ten minutes later, turns into “a woman.” And that’s alright. As soon as the party and its program are over, the person transforms into a man and that’s just fine. There isn’t the reprimand “you were a woman and you’re no longer a woman.” No. Being so open is normal, especially considering that members of this community do not necessarily comprise a portion of the population that has financial means and the highest educational level. It’s even more extraordinary to show viewers those dimensions in which one person is shouldering the other because they are brothers and sisters. There is a fraternity and sorority in this community because in the moment of the party, we’re somewhat in the same boat. We’re enjoying ourselves therefore there cannot be any animosity. I would say that, because there is so much frustration during the week, the day and the month, you don’t come to a gathering to dole out more frustration. You’re here to spend some time, to share the moment, and not only to make your friends laugh but also to laugh with yourself.
Speaking of fluidity, there is a feminine spirit in my nightlife series. Most of the people in the pictures are men dressed as women. It’s clear. So, with that comes the criticism that I’m promoting a certain type of gay person. I’m promoting the idea that gay men are feminine. So the implied message of that criticism is that it’s a bad thing to be a gay feminine man. I had to think about that idea a lot. I thought: Is it what I’m really doing? Am I really comfortable doing that? My answer was: The critics who said that, may or may not realize it, but it’s their way to speak about and to defend the heteronormative way of life and to discriminate those who don’t follow it: Men should be normal, masculine, all those attributes; women should be like this. So I answer with a question: Why not? So why not appreciate young men who like to wear makeup? Well, you are criticizing me for showing that range. I bet you’ve seen the masculine men in the pictures, are they less gay for that? Or are they better men for conforming? Or don't you see me showing those pictures of “not so feminine” or non-drag persons? Don't you see me showing that aspect of gayness? Can you consider that? I am one of the persons who stand and say that I'm queer. So is that not enough? Showing a feminine guy would mean that every guy in the community is feminine? No! But why not show it?
More Dimensions of Queerness in Haiti
I have several projects in the works. I recently started a series of male nudes; I’m working with Haitian multimedia artist Maksaens Denis on a project titled “Erotes”; and I would love to expand my Vodou series to include queer life in the lakou, outside of Port-au-Prince.
The question “why not?” came back to mind when I thought about doing the male nude series. Nude photography makes viewers question themselves. In this case, when they look at a naked man, they then question other things in the society and process the reasons why our society gazes or doesn’t want to gaze at the male nude body. In terms of my project, it seems impossible to conceive here that an openly gay Haitian man undresses other men (who may or may not be gay), photographs them in the nude, and then posts the images online. People ask me, “Are you crazy?” Luckily my first model was a friend. I decided to share the result of our session on Facebook. The reaction was encouraging. So I asked myself: “why not really do it?” Again, I really insist on saying it: It's a gay man or a queer person photographing the male body. It's important. That’s why I insist it’s very important for me to stand behind the images and to reveal myself as the photographer. The queer aspect and the queer aesthetic will be more evident in a certain way. Doing that and showing the nude images are acts of activism. That’s how the series began: my way not only to approach what masculinity is but also to question what is considered masculine and what is not. For example, some of the images are not so traditionally masculine. In one of my favorites images, the nude guy voguing, all the physical hidden imperfections of a man are very visible. He has stretch marks, which are considered feminine flaws. Why can't he be a strong man? Why can't he be a “gason solid?” What is a gason solid or not? That image makes us question what we think is strong. Also, when you look generally at his body, it’s a little feminine. His posture is what is traditionally seen as “fem.” Yet in the image, that femininity is different. I name it gason solid. He is solid.
If I seem more and more daring, then I have to acknowledge Maksaens Denis’ work, how daring it is, really influences my work more than he knows. Maksaens is an artist I admire. I love and support what he does. He and I are not of the same generation. He has been in the field a long time. I am pretty new, a little bird. Maksaens is very generous and has a youthful spirit. We first met in 2012, in Cuba, and our friendship grew naturally. I wanted to work on gay sex. I thought it would be impossible. Where would I find people to have sex in front of me, photograph the scenes and then show them? I said to Maksaens: we should do it. He answered: “I'm creating a video project and I would like you to collaborate with me. Let’s work on it together.” I was fortunate enough to find two models who were very easy going and I began the series “Erotes.” In June 2016, for the Kolektif 509/Villa Kalewes exhibit “LIBER8TION” in Pétion-Ville, Maksaens created an abstract video montage of male nudes in a metal cage. His video installation was surrounded by my images of sex between two men. Affection between men. Passion between men. We lit the room with a red light. There was an oppressive feeling. Nonetheless, if these erotic moments are happening, it felt as they should happen there. I mean, inside the room. Very much in the dark. Very sensual. What was absolutely magnificent is that people who are not my friends came, and saw the images and the installation for what they are. They saw sensuality in them. They noticed the details. But they never mentioned, “oh, this is pornography you’re trying to show.” No. I'm talking about Haitian ladies in their forties who are quite traditional and had a conservative education. They came and said: “Oh, I like what you did there.” I really enjoyed that side of the theme. The reaction. I knew there was an expectation about that work. Even the images I used to announce the exhibit were tantalizing, but viewers didn't expect I would go even further.
In the future, it would be interesting to document gay communities outside of Port-au-Prince, because Haiti isn’t only the republic of Port-au-Prince. Obviously the dynamics are not the same in cities beyond the capital because the people don’t gather the same way. Communication is not the same. Some cities are said to be “more enlightened” than others. Let’s think about Gonaives and its surrounding towns, for example. When Gonaives residents talk about their gay world, you sense that they’re more open. Yet I believe that their gay world still remains complex, despite this opening. The openings have parameters, within certain frameworks. It’s not as if it’s the big gay life with the gay pride parade and all is well. The persons who deem themselves “normal” say: “Let me allow you some leeway. I give it to you. I close my eyes on this for this and that reason.” And it’s clear to all. I didn’t verify what I’m saying, but I’ve felt it. Gonaives and the Artibonite region have remained within Haiti Vodou’s stronghold. The three main Haitian lakou are in close proximity of Gonaives. We know how Vodou religion is in terms of sexuality and in terms of personal development as it relates to who the human being is, which I feel is linked precisely to this small dose of freedom that people get from Vodou. It’s a religion that allows you to be more. It’s more permissive. There’s this license, and Gonaives’ closeness to the three lakou might be why residents feel they are open-minded. It allows people to give themselves more freedom because the other person who could perhaps rise against him has found an explanation for his behavior. And when you’re in an environment when Vodou is very present, it’s probably easier to see two men kissing. Even if it’s within the Vodou ceremony proceedings. Even if it’s little dry kisses. Even if it’s two spirits who are kissing. What remains is the image of two men. For the person who doesn’t have a spirit in their head, two men are touching lips and two men are stuck to one another. However, they’ll say it’s the spirits. There’s a resonance either way because the spirits go through the men’s bodies, and whether they want it or not, the image stays on their mind because it is an image they probably don’t see out and about in the streets. They see it in the peristyle and it must linger. But imagine if those two men are not in the peristyle and are not hosting spirits. They go out on the lakou grounds and they have a dry kiss, it’s a different matter. It’s a scandal. Still, it remains that the image will eventually enter the people’s mindset that the possibility of two men kissing exists. And I think that Vodou plays an important role in that case.
If we question this further, Vodou is another big question mark because we – myself included – like to say that Vodou is a space of tolerance. I haven’t experienced too much Vodou, but I’ll repeat again, I am a person who likes to observe. My eyes are always everywhere and I’m watching small scenes. I experienced a moment at a ceremony in Lakou Soukri. There’s a dynamic between the people. Many of the hounsi (the Vodou priestess’ or priest’s assistants), especially if they’re men, are effeminate. It’s almost evident to the senses that they’re homosexuals. Around them, however, I sensed there was a lot of mockery. It’s not the same ribbing you experience in the gay parties. It’s a lonje dwèt (finger-pointing), discriminatory mockery. There is a certain tolerance. But acceptance? I don’t think acceptance walks together with pointing the finger and chwi chwi chwi (gossipy sounds). Acceptance walks with: “we’re making a joke, but it’s one open to all.”
The other thing is the fact that in, let’s call it the spaces of tolerance in Haiti, they always want to circumscribe your sexuality to a gender. You’re masisi, therefore you have to be effeminate in order for conforming people to have a minimum of tolerance. Why would you be athletic or go to the gym if you’re a masisi? It means that later on you might want to fuck me, the heterosexual man. To be a masculine masisi doesn’t compute. That’s why you’ll see perhaps there’s some tolerance. However, when there’s tolerance, it’s for those extrovert masisi who are feminine, cross-dressing, public market vendors. It’s the only way the person who is “normal” might end up being tolerant. But a masisi who is masculine and aligns himself in mind, body and sexuality with the behavior of a man, becomes more complicated. To go back to Vodou culture, the religion is a big question mark because it prefers the heterosexual family structure: mother, father and child. That structure is privileged. It’s important to look at Vodou alongside how it manages sexism. And sexism will indicate something about homophobia or not. Still, I believe Vodou remains more open than other religions because practitioners have found in it an explanation for being masisi or madivin because the lwa have decided so.
 Blink of an Eye: Haiti-Brazil. Translation the author’s.
 See: Mario LaMothe’s performance script “Our Love on Fire: Gay Men’s Stories of Violence and Hope in Haiti,” in this issue.
Self-taught photographer Josué Azor was born in 1986. He has been traveling around Haiti since 2008, to merge his passion for photography and his appreciation of Haitian practices. His work has been exhibited regularly in Haiti, at the Brazil-Haiti Cultural Centre, the French Institute, and Fondasyon Konesans ak Libete (FOKAL). Internationally, his works have been exhibited in Rome, Italy (2010), Montréal, QC, Canada (2011), Durham, NC, USA (2015).