Inspired by Haiti, Photographer Alice Smeets Shoots "Ghetto Tarot" Cards

We take pride in our diversity here in Miami, and the growing Little Haiti neighborhood is posed to be one of our city’s next hotspots. So when we heard about 27-year-old Belgian photographer, filmmaker, artist, and teacher Alice Smeets’ latest project shot in the largest ghetto in Port-Au-Prince, our multi-cultural ears were metaphorically perked. Smeets, who won the UNICEF Photo of the Year award as a 21-year-old in 2008, is currently crowd funding her photographic interpretation of the traditional Rider Waite deck of tarot cards. She traveled to Haiti to work with a group of artists called Atis Rezistans and there, spent two weeks shooting what’s now the Ghetto Tarot.

Smeets checked in with New Times to discuss the Ghetto Tarot, Haitian culture, and the role of art to educate, inspire, and empower. 

Miami New Times: When did you first conceptualize the idea for Ghetto Tarot?
Alice Smeets: For a long time, I have wanted to photograph the tarot deck. About six years ago I documented the modern witchcraft movement around Europe with my camera and one of the many gatherings I photographed was a tarot workshop at the Far Away Center in England. The inspiring hosts gave me a tarot deck as a present and I have been fascinated by it ever since.

Taking ordinary pictures of the scenes seemed too simple; my aim was to create a very personal deck without loosing the different spirits of the cards. During a meditation as part of a yoga session last November, the idea came into my mind to combine three of my passions: the spiritual world, the Haitian culture and people, and the philosophical reflections about the dualities in our world—in this case rich and poor.

Since 2007 I have been a regular visitor to Haiti and have lived in the country for two years, as well. Its complexity and spirituality have played a big role in my life. The observations of the Haitian society have brought answers to many questions I have had.

While always feeling compassion for the people living in very poor conditions, I learned that no matter what your living circumstances are, your happiness depends on other things than material wealth. It is community, a sense of belonging, finding your purpose in life and spiritual growth. Many of us in the so-called “first world,” including me, have lost many of those so-called “poor” people I have met on my journey so far for teaching me those valuable lessons. So taking the tarot pictures in the ghetto of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince was the obvious choice to create a very personal deck—moving away from the clichéd images of poverty, illustrating the spirits and meanings of the cards with a touch of humor in the middle of the slum and showing black people on the traditional, ancient European cards to break stereotypes.

How did you develop an interest in tarot cards originally?
As a documentary photographer, I have documented the witchcraft movement around Europe and the U.S. in 2008 and 2009. The pictures I took can be found on my website. ( I photographed witches gatherings, ceremonies, rituals, and workshops. One of the workshops was a beginners’ workshop for tarot that I attended with my camera. Through this project I also learned how to read the cards.

Have you had your cards read recently? What did they say?!
I read the cards for myself; I don’t have someone else doing it for me. The last time was three weeks ago, when some people started offensively criticizing the name of the deck. The cards supported my gut feeling and told me to stick to my convictions, keep the name and answer the offenses with as much affection and kind words as possible.

I realized that the photos are calling to the emotions of many viewers. They either create excitement about the beauty that is captured in the middle of the ghetto or about the fact that the ancient tarot cards come alive while they can also act as a trigger to the emotion of anger that some of us carry within us.

My hope is that the Ghetto Tarot photography will lead their observers closer to a complete awareness of these sentiments where he/she starts to feel them consciously without judging to be able to release them if necessary.

When did you begin shooting this project? How long did it take you to take all the photos and design the deck?
The actual preparation of the project was about a week, although I could also count the last five years of tarot reading as part of the preparation time. The photos were taken in two weeks because my flight home was already booked and this gave us this time restriction. Therefore, we worked from early morning until just before sunset every day. That was very exhausting for me (not to mention for the artists because most of them assisted only for one or two days), but the excitement for the project drove me out of bed every morning at 5:00 a.m.

How did you get involved with the Atiz Rezistans and what was it like working with them?
Every two years Atis Rezistans invite Western and non-Western artists to their home to create art together. The exhibition that arises from the collaboration is called Ghetto Biennale. The idea is to portray a more creative aspect of the Haitian reality, to counterbalance the current, dominant negative portrayal of the country. I met Atis Rezistans during their second Ghetto Biennale in 2011 while I was exploring the fascinating lives of Haitian citizens. I became friends with some of the artists and we stayed in touch ever since.

The Haitians immediately loved the idea when I told it to them, being acquainted with cartomancy from the Voodoo religion. They immediately jumped on board to help realize this project and understood the spirits of the cards. They were very helpful to find the materials needed and often created them on the spot. As examples, the lantern for the Hermit that is created out of a old metal can. The black cat for the Queen of Wands and the animals on the Moon that are made out of used car tires.

When did you first start traveling to Haiti and why?
I came to Haiti the first time eight years ago, when I was 19 years old. I don’t really know what drew me to Haiti, but I have always trusted my gut feeling and it told me that this island is a place for me to discover. And from the first day that I stepped on the island it fascinated me. But at the same time, I had so many questions that I couldn’t find answers to. With each trip, I answered one more of my questions, and today I consider Haiti to be the best professor I have ever had. So many lessons are to be learned in this magical place.

As a photographer, my main motivation has always been to bring change using my camera as a tool. As a witness of injustice in this world, especially in Haiti, I have always wanted to share my emotions and experiences through my pictures and was hoping for people to act as a result to stop the unfairness. I photographed people in seemingly hopeless situations, people stuck in a circle of poverty, destruction and pain. And I accomplished my wish to touch the viewers’ feelings and observed that the emotions that my documentary photos brought up were emotions of pity, sadness, and depression. Finally, I realized that the negative feelings that my images projected onto the audience as well as onto the subjects created a sensation of disempowerment instead of an inspiration towards the act of change. With this realization came an understanding unveiling the continuous exposure of my own state of mind in every picture frame and the awareness that the change I desired for this world could only thrive within myself.

As a consequence I put the camera down for a while to turn my attention towards my inner self. It seemed like a long and difficult path in which I tried out many different methods, including reading tarot cards, until I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel—the revelation that I don't need to be the observer of my and the worlds problems and destiny. I am a creator.

I feel inspired to combine my passions to create a very personal piece of art. And I hope that a spark of this inspiration will arise in others, especially in Haitians because I strongly believe in the ability of the Haitians to find their own solutions. Since generations of Haitians have witnessed people telling them that they are poor and that they need Western "solutions" to their problems, many have associated themselves with this idea a long time ago.

Our objective is to highlight the creativity and strength of the citizens of the ghetto and we are certain that a treasure of innovative ideas lies within them that can dissolve the circle of dependence and victimization. They will break through if the world starts looking at their skills and capacities instead of their deficiencies. 

Help fund the Ghetto Tarot’s indiegogo campaign here
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Hilary Saunders