You'll Never Look At Tarot Cards The Same Way...

Photo: Courtesy of Alice Smeets.
What does it mean to live in a ghetto? Photographer Alice Smeets and Haitian artist collective Atis Rezistans, or resistant artists, set out to challenge that idea through a series of stunning portraits that transform Port-au-Prince residents into a living deck of tarot cards. With costumes and props created entirely from found and recycled objects, the project is meant to showcase the creativity and ingenuity of the Haitian people, as well as change the narrative of dependence and victimization.

The project also works to reclaim the word "ghetto." To the artists who live and work there, "ghetto" doesn't just represent poverty and disadvantage, the word represents community, family, solidarity, strength, and rich creativity. Smeets spoke with Refinery29 from Belgium.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alice Smeets.
What inspired you to create the Ghetto Tarot project?
"Everything started seven years ago, when I documented the modern witchcraft movement around Europe and the U.S. as a photojournalist. One of the many gatherings I assisted was a tarot workshop at the Far Away Centre in England. There, I not only took pictures, but also followed the instructions of the teacher, Marcus Katz. Marcus gave me a Rider Waite Tarot deck as a present that has been with me ever since.

"Taking ordinary pictures of the scenes seemed too simple; my aim was to create a very personal deck without losing the different spirits of the cards. After a meditation, the idea came into my mind to combine my passions: the spiritual world, Haitian culture, philosophical reflections about the dualities in our world, and of course, photography."
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Photo: Courtesy of Alice Smeets.
What inspired you to create the Ghetto Tarot project? (Continued)
"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 Haitian society have brought answers to many questions I have had.

"I learned that no matter what your living circumstances are, your happiness depends on things other than material wealth. It is community, a sense of belonging, finding your purpose in life, and spiritual growth.

"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."
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Photo: Courtesy of Alice Smeets.
Who are the Atis Rezistans and how did you get to know and work with them?
"In downtown Port-au-Prince, the streets are filled with plastic trash, dust, and old car tires; and may appear first like a scene of misery and desperation to anyone who is about to discover Haiti for the first time.

"A group of artists called Atis Rezistans made it their mission to change this perception. They find inspiration in the center of chaos; inspiration to create the world they dream of, inspiration to transform trash into something beautiful, inspiration to craft art.

"The pieces of art inside the museum are sculptures, paintings and collages made out of plastic, metal, tires, timber, old dolls, and real human bones. The beauty that the artists see hidden within the waste radiates from their works."
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Photo: Courtesy of Alice Smeets.
Who are the Atis Rezistans and how did you get to know and work with them? (Continued)
"Every two years, Atis Rezistans invites Western and non-Western artists to their home to create art together. The resulting exhibition is called 'Ghetto Biennale.' The idea is to depict a more creative aspect of Haitian reality in order to counterbalance the current, predominantly 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 Ghetto Tarot idea when I told them, being acquainted with cartomancy from the voodoo religion. They have assisted me not only by posing for the photos, but also by helping me find, as well as create, the materials needed."
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Photo: Courtesy of Alice Smeets.
What is the disconnect between what people outside Haiti think of Haiti and what people living in Haiti actually experience?
"People outside of Haiti often think that Haitians are poor, uneducated, and that they need Western help and solutions to develop their country. I believe that this isn’t true at all. I have witnessed so many Haitians who are creative enough to find their own solutions. The only thing holding them back is their lack of self-confidence.

"For generations, they have seen foreigners come and go, telling them what they need and how they should work to get it. And they are failing trying to reach our goals and ideals. But they have the power to find their own way once the world will trust them."
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Photo: Courtesy of Alice Smeets.
What is the disconnect between what people outside Haiti think of Haiti and what people living in Haiti actually experience? (Continued)
"More than 200 years ago, Haiti was an island of enslaved Africans and French colonial masters — until the slaves fought back. Imagine: malnourished slaves fighting against the biggest army of the world at that time. The Haitians against Napoleon. And the Haitians won!

"They made history by creating the world's first successful slave revolt and becoming the very first independent black nation. Haiti has influenced the whole world and paid a huge contribution in the abolishment of the slave trade.

"I am certain that the Haitians are capable of developing their own country if they stop being distracted from all the foreigners with good intentions who are trying to help them, but creating a chaotic environment."
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Photo: Courtesy of Alice Smeets.
What does the word "ghetto" mean to you and the artists who worked with you? Did you set out to challenge people's impressions of that word in your work?
"In Haiti, 'ghetto' means a life in the slums. It means living without financial security. Yet 'ghetto' also means community, family, solidarity, strength, and rich creativity.

"The Haitians are claiming the word 'ghetto' as their own. The word reached the island from overseas, where its connotation was associated with racism, poverty, and exclusion. They are liberating themselves of this unfavourable interpretation and turning it into something beautiful.

"Their act of appropriating a cheerless word by altering its meaning is an act of inspiration. It has inspired hundreds of visitors and it has inspired me."
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Photo: Courtesy of Alice Smeets.
What kind of materials did you and the Atis Rezistans use to create these scenes? How long did each one take to create? What were the emotions of the artists involved?
"We used everything that was available in the slums of Haiti. A lot of trash; for example, the lantern for the Hermit was created out of an old metal can. The black cat for the Queen of Wands was made out of used car tires. We also used the sculptures and collages of Atis Rezistans, which are amazing masterpieces of art.

"It was different for each picture. Some photos took only half an hour to create; others took a few hours. Some photos I recreated later in another environment. because I wasn’t happy with the result.

"The artists loved to participate and they became the actors of the cards. I told them what the card means and they played the role very well."
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Photo: Courtesy of Alice Smeets.
What message do you hope to send with your work?
"I felt 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.

"For generations, 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. 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."
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Photo: Courtesy of Alice Smeets.
Do you have any advice for young women who would love to follow a similar path of using art for social justice?
"The only advice I can give is to listen to your heart. My work is highly intuitive and I rarely listen to the analytical voice in my head (even though it exists and tries to convince me to do otherwise).

"If you do what you love, believe in yourself and your work without listening to your doubts and fears, success will follow."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length.