To turn photojournalism into participative art is a tall order, more so if the aim is to author a new conversation about poverty. In 2014, Alice Smeets took on the challenge.
“Ghetto” is at once a delicate and strong word. To mention it is to walk around eggshells, to conjure up images—rightly or wrongly, depending on who we are talking to—of ramshackle houses and rough-and-tumble conditions. For those who haven’t been in one or had the serious occasion to think about it, “ghetto” will be a confounding term.
UNICEF-awarded photographer Alice Smeets knew enough about the misconceptions; she grew up far from where she could actually see one. But this did not stop her from trying to understand poverty. At 19, she flew to Haiti, miles away (in culture as in distance) from her hometown of Belgium. Here she learned that poverty is not to be romanticized. It is complex and structural. And yet a caveat: Even in poverty some people strive to live the most dignified way they know how. Some of them can even create art out of rubble.
Smeets has been doing documentary projects in Haiti for seven years before creating the 2014 series Ghetto Tarot, a found-art spin on photojournalism. Together with Atis Rezistans, she reimagined Pamela Colman Smith’s tarot cards from the early 1900s. Instead of shooting in lush environments, Smeets chose areas of Port-au-Prince where the occult cards can excite contradictions and similarities. Early this month, she talked to Lomography about the distinctive project and the years leading up to it.
Please introduce yourself to our Lomography community.
Alice. Human Being. Photographer. Journalist. Filmmaker. Artist. Wedding photojournalist. Project Manager. Teacher. Traveler. There isn’t just one word to describe what I’m doing. I am a free spirit. I make my dreams and ideas come true.
I was lucky to assist one of the greatest photojournalists of the last century, Philip Jones Griffiths, who taught me valuable lessons about photography and life.
Since 2007 I have been traveling to and living in Haiti to document the country and its people with my camera. Today I live in Belgium.
Please walk us through the first day you used a camera.
I believe I received my first camera when I was 7 years old. It was a pink camera that not only took pictures but also made funny noises.
When I was a teenager I started photographing a lot. I was taking pictures of my best friends, trying to copy great fashion photographers, but wasn’t very good at it. The photos look extremely amateur; I laugh a lot about them today. But it was only when I studied photography that I started doing documentary style photos and only in 2014 that I created my first real artistic project.
When did you begin to consider yourself a photographer?
It was during a workshop with famous war photographer Philip Jones Griffiths. Back then I felt like a photography student, a beginner or an amateur, I didn’t believe that I was very advanced in the art yet. All participants and teachers went to dinner together. During that dinner, Philip, who sat next to me, leaned over and whispered into my ear: “You are a photographer.” To hear that from such a famous master of photography was such a boost to my self-confidence that I started to call myself a photographer too.
Tell us about your training as a photographer.
I attended a photography BA program at an art college in Belgium. It was supposed to last for three years. After one year though, I felt that a school wasn’t the right place to learn photography so I started attending workshops by professional photographers, did an internship at a photo agency, and traveled on my own to Haiti. I documented the culture with my camera instead.
My path was learning by doing until I met famous war photographer Philip Jones Griffiths during one of these workshops. He offered me a position as his assistant and I accepted. My stay at his place in London lasted two months, which also happened to be the last two months of his life due to terminal cancer.
Philip taught me an immense amount about photography, journalism and our current state of the world. He felt that he wanted to pass on his knowledge to a young photographer before his death. After his passing, I continued my journey on my own by creating my own picture stories and finding magazines that would publish them. I participated in photography contests and was lucky to win the 2008 Unicef Picture of the Year Award. It was for a photograph of a little girl walking through a puddle in the middle of the slum in Haiti. The award made my life easier, as it gave my photographs more credibility and it became easier to approach magazine editors.
If you could invent a category for your photos, what would it be?
If we are talking about the Ghetto Tarot photos (which is very different to what I used to do before), I would call it “Creational-Make-Your-Spirit-Come-to-The-Surface-Photography”.
What is photography to you?
A tool to create excitement in my life. A tool that brings me into situation that I would never find myself in without the camera. And a way to share my experiences and lessons in life with others.
What is your philosophy of beauty?
Beauty is raw honesty.
Please tell us more about how you create a new photo series.
My process is organic. I create images on the spot without much planning. I have no approach other than to listen to my gut feeling. My intuition tells me what to do and how to do it.
What kind of light are you drawn to?
I love beautiful light, but I am not going to wait for it when I feel like taking pictures. If the light isn’t right, I take the photo in the shadow or inside and make it work.
Can you tell us about Atis Rezistans and the people featured in Ghetto Tarot? How involved were they in the project?
Their names are Claudel Casseus, Leonce Syndia, Mario Alito Denis, Racine Polycarpe, Blondine Herard, Jean Robert Palanquet, Anchella Jasmin, Natalise Amboise, Wesner Bazil, Louis Kervens, Innocent Londel, Ralph Georges, Rossi Jacque Casimir, Claudy Chamblin, Guely Laurent, Eliphete Dieu, Mehule Marley Monoly, Andre Eugene, Wlison Bonhomme, Jean Daniel, Laura Morel, Steevens Simeon.
They are amazing; they have inspired me with their philosophy of turning trash into art. Instead of seeing the dirty city as a problem, they use it to create sculptures and other master pieces from it. That made me realize that we can do that with every problem we have in the world. Atis Rezistans assisted me by posing for the photos and creating the materials needed.
What was their reaction to the cards? Did they try to interpret them before reenacting the images?
There was no need for them to interpret them. Being acquainted with cartomancy from the Voodoo religion, they understood and appreciated the cards as well as the idea to turn them into life scenes.
You mentioned in your Indiegogo page that Haiti is a special place for you. What is the attraction of the country? Why did you decide to shoot Ghetto Tarot in Haiti and not in any other place?
I visited Haiti for the first time when I was 19 years old. My desire to go out into the world and experience cultures and traditions that are completely different from my own drew me to this magical island.
From the first day when I stepped out of the plane in Port-au-Prince, Haiti has fascinated me and generated many questions that have led me on a journey to find answers. I chose to visit the island more often and eventually live there for a while to learn from her people.
Today I consider Haiti to be the best professor I have ever had. So many lessons I have learned in the ‘Ghetto University’ of Haiti, as my friend Louino Robillard likes to call the environment he grew up in. It’s the university of real life and chaos, raw emotions, of contrast and complexity.
I decided to photograph the Ghetto Tarot project there, because I wanted the project to be a very personal and creative art project. And no other country has inspired me that much.
What other art forms inspire your photographic work?
Does philosophy count as art? I love listening to Alan Watts, Terence McKenna and other spiritual teachers and draw a lot of inspiration from them.
What would you like people to take away from your work? Which one are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the Ghetto Tarot series, because it combines everything I have learned in recent years. I want people to understand that it’s only their perspective on things that blocks them from doing what they’d love to do.
To support Ghetto Tarot, visit Alice Smeets’ page on Indiegogo. Photos in this article are published with the artist’s permission.