Foreigners walking through Port-au-Prince might associate Haiti’s capital city with misery and desperation. But in the eyes of Alice Smeets and the Haitian artists known as Atis Rezistans (Resistant Artists), inspiration is just right around the corner from chaos.
“Ghetto in Haiti means a life in the slums. Ghetto means living in poverty. But Ghetto also means community, family, solidarity, strength, and a richness of creativity,” she said via email.
Smeets first visited Haiti in 2007, and she’s been coming back ever since. For years the documentary photography she made in the country focused on the injustices she witnessed. And while she saw that her photos had an impact on viewers, she ultimately decided they only exacerbated feelings of disempowerment, rather than serving as inspiration to enact change.
It was this realization, as well as a tarot workshop she attended while documenting the modern witchcraft movement in England in 2008, that served as the inspiration for the Ghetto Tarot, a forthcoming tarot deck that recreates the early 20th century Rider-Waite deck with photos of Port-au-Prince locals in their communities. Smeets is currently raising money on IndieGogo to fund the printing of the first edition of the deck as well as a website for the project.
“My objective is to highlight the creativity and strength of the citizens of the Haitian Ghetto, and I am certain that inside of them lays a treasure of innovative ideas to dissolve the circle of dependence and victimization that will break through if the world starts looking at their skills and capacities instead of their deficiencies,” she said.
For about two weeks, Smeets worked from sunrise to sunset to take the photos for the deck. Atis Rezistans, a group from downtown Port-au-Prince that makes art out of the trash that fills the streets of the ghetto, constructed set pieces, including a lantern made out of a metal can for the Hermit card and a black cat made out of used car tires for the Queen of Wands card. Many of the artists also posed for the photos, along with other friends of Smeets’ from the area. Working in the dust and the heat made shooting difficult, but Smeets said the greatest challenge was overcoming the suspicions of locals in areas that were new to her and her collaborators.
“Some Haitians believe that people want to harm them with dark spiritual practices. Obviously we had nothing like that in mind, but the artists and I had to be careful of what we told the spectators to avoid misconceptions. So, for example, when we photographed the Three of Pentacles in front of a Catholic church in Cité Soleil, the poorest slum of the country, we told the public that we were imitating the scene of Maria, Joseph, and Jesus instead of explaining the tarot photo project,” she said.
While Smeets may not have had the opportunity to explain the value of tarot reading to all those she encountered in Haiti, she hopes the deck can serve as an example of the often-maligned practice’s positive potential.
“Some people (and I used to be one of them) think that it’s esoteric nonsense, an absurdity to rob some naive people blind or that it is only done by crazy, religious fanatics. When the tarot cards come alive in photographs in a place that can only be called ‘the real world,’ with their spirits well represented, allowing the viewer to feel the archetypes, I hope that some of the doubters will start looking at Tarot in a different way,” she said.
Smeets’ primary objective for the project, however, is to help undo stereotypes about Haitians themselves, and encourage viewers to rethink ways they conceive and approach the country’s challenges. “My wish is that more people will start traveling to Haiti not to pity and help the poor, but to find and share inspiration and empower each other by seeing the Haitians as equal partners instead of victims.”