Vodou: heartfelt, close to the earth

At a Vodou ceremony in Gonaives, women dance for the spirits—dances full of opposites, subtle and dynamic, graceful and ragged, the vibrant tones and rhythms of the drums creating calm, balance, sensuality, and passion. Les Stone watches these women shake, wail, and swoon, go into a trance, shout to the lwa, drop to the ground.

Meet Les Stone.

He’s a critically acclaimed photographer, winner of several World Press Photo Awards and Picture of the Year Awards. Stone has chronicled the human cost of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Liberia, Somalia, Cambodia, Vietnam, and many others. Stone has visited Haiti more than one hundred times. “Haiti is just an incredible, unique, Hemingwayesque sort of place,” he says.

At Vodou Pilgrimage in the south of Haiti a man prays at Baron Samedi cross before entering sacred water fall and pool.
At Vodou Pilgrimage in the south of Haiti a man prays at Baron Samedi cross before entering sacred water fall and pool.

In 1987, he immediately fell in love with the country and its culture, including Vodou. “I really love Vodou,” Stone says.  “I love the fiery and intense dancing, the drumming, the people. Vodou is heartfelt, close to the earth, close to the beginning of time. It is real—probably more real than anything else in this world.”

Vodou is one of the most photographed subject in Haiti. Every photographer that has gone to Haiti has photographed its rites. So what makes Les Stone so unique? Well, here’s a photojournalist who has put together a somewhat comprehensive imagery of Vodou over a period of two decades. “I stayed with it,” Les says. “That’s what makes my work unique.”

To the non-practitioners, Vodou is too often dismissed as a primitive practice with strange connotations. It’s been sensationalized, trivialized and parodied. Stone wants to portray the real face of Vodou and help shake off the dark Hollywood-driven clichés of flesh-eating zombies, pin dolls and devil worship. “Vodou is a beautiful religion practiced by several millions people, and it’s a very peaceful religion for the most part.”

Stone believes that the demonization of Vodou stems from missionaries and sensationalist movies, not to mention bad actors that show up in every religion. “I don’t deny that there are probably some houngans and mambos making evil spells. Sure. But there are occasional Catholics and Protestants doing the same thing. Buddhists. Muslims. Jews. There’s always that 5% of the population that’s crazy.” Like any other, the religion might include practices that are considered malicious; yet to associate the religion itself with evil is disheartening. “I think there are a lot of Protestant missionaries in Haiti spreading very bad rumors about Vodou. They’ve been trying to stamp it out for 200 years.”

Vodou was legalized in Haiti in 1987, under a new constitution that recognizes the rights of all religions.

“I think Vodou is part of the Haitian soul,” Stone says. “Even the Catholic Church has come to terms with Vodou in Haiti. You will see the Catholic priests at the ceremonies sometimes. You see them mingling with the Vodou priests. In reality, Vodou and Christianity, together, is the glue that holds the Haitian people together.”

Stone’s work has appeared in the pages of National Geographic, Time, Life, Paris Match, Stern, Fortune, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Mother Jones, and countless others.

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