A Haunting History That Comes to Life at Carnival; Survival Is the Name of the Game in Haiti after the Earthquake but a New Exhibition in Newcastle Shows That Hard Times Have Contributed to the Country's Rich Culture. DAVID WHETSTONE Reports

Article excerpt

Byline: DAVID WHETSTONE

PHOTOGRAPHER Leah Gordon was forced to reconsider the opening sentence of her book, Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti.

"Haiti seems to be on a fault line of history," she wrote. Two weeks later the island nation was hit by last year's terrible earthquake.

Though haunted by her "almost prophetic" first line, she decided to stick with it. Despite the deaths and the devastation, it remained true to her feelings about a country she had been documenting for 16 years.

In particular, she had taken her camera - a 50-year-old Rolleicord - to the coastal town of Jacmel where, every year before Lent, the locals dress up for carnival time.

The word carnival may conjure up the smiling flamboyance of Notting Hill or Rio, but Jacmel's carnival, on the evidence of Leah Gordon's photos, is a more edgy affair.

Read the captions in Newcastle's Side Gallery, or Leah's book, and you will realise that the Jacmel carnival, far from being a tourism-boosting photo-opportunity, is a living expression of Haiti's triumphant yet bloody and troubled past.

"Much of the rest of the world seems to have efficiently papered over any cracks where history could accidentally seep, bubble or explode with a veneer of consumerism and wage slavery," the photographer goes on to say.

Not here, though. Here, at carnival time, old injustices are remembered as if they happened yesterday.

Haiti is a country born of the slave trade whose citizens rose up against their French oppressors and established the first black republic.

It has fashioned its own culture and its own religion, which Leah Gordon calls Vodou. …