In Conversation with

Josué Azor: Photography as a way of getting to know oneself

Josué Azor took his first steps in photography while studying administration but it was the devastating earthquake in 2010 that propelled him to pursue this artistic practice professionally. In this interview the artist tells us more about documenting the local queer community as a way of archiving dissent, the intersection of Voodoo and queer life, and the similarities between Brazil and Haiti.

C&AL: How did you move from landscape photography, at the beginning of your career, to documentary photography that allows you to delve into the stories of Haitian people?

JA: Through my photos you can see how I evolved through time. Remember, they were calling Haiti “pays maudit” (wretched country). I wanted to really get to know the country for myself. From exploring landscapes, I gradually went into exploring a Voodoo ceremony for the first time in my life. This was on 6 January 2010. I spent my whole life with parents who had a phobia of Voodoo. It is a big archive and you don’t have to be a voodooist to see and experience the beauty. But at least give it attention and give it respect. It’s a way of giving respect to your own people.

Six days after my first ceremony, on 12 January, there was an earthquake. When I went to my second Voodoo ceremony later that year I brought my camera, and of course I took pictures. Because of my cultural background I had to get used to Voodoo. When I listened to the music for the first time, I thought I was listening to the devil. I am saying this to highlight that my photography was a way of looking at and getting to know myself as well.

C&AL: I find your series Racin (Root in Haitian Créole) on Haitian rituals very moving. Especially the theatricality of the portrait of an Untitled portrait you took in 2011. How did you capture this moment?

JA: This photo was taken during a Voodoo ceremony. I was already a photographer without knowing it. The person is in trance, and it was as if I was in trance too. You have the song. You have the energy. Everything is very intense. Magic happened and you can see that in the picture.

The other thing is that the people in that space are very generous with photographers. It makes me emotional to think about when they said: “Show us in a different light. Show how beautiful we are. You know we have so much bad press.” So that’s how I took that picture.

C&AL: In your series Clin d’Oeil: Haïti-Brésil (Wink: Brazil-Haiti) you explored the similarities between Haitian and Brazilian people and landscapes. This was one of your first projects as a professional photographer after the earthquake in 2010. How did this project come about and what was the relevance to you? 

JA: I had the opportunity to go to Brasilia, São Paulo and Porto Alegre. I took photos and started to notice some similarities. My eyes have always been attracted to Black people and my mind was doing comparisons on different levels. For instance, we went to an agriculture company and their yearly budget was bigger than the budget for all of Haiti.

From that, I received the proposition to do an exhibition for the Centre Culturel Brésil-Haïti in Port au Prince. My perception of photography has since evolved. It was a great opportunity for a young photographer, but I would not do it again. It’s like someone who didn’t know how to swim and was just pushed into the water.

C&AL: Your series Noctambules deals with queer and particularly gay night life in Port-au-Prince. Why was it important to you to explore this part of the city’s society?  

JA: When I go out, I’m not necessarily going for parties. I put a focus on queer nightlife and all types of underground scenes, even though it’s difficult to find scenes nowadays because access can be complicated. I perceive the nightlife in Haiti’s streets to be dominated by males. Thus, to focus on it is another way to talk about all types of masculinity. Men transform from acting tough and muscular on the street during the day to being totally soft, open and calm about life at night. Nightlife is a special space. Sound is different. The way you listen is different. Sometimes I feel more comfortable at night, for security reasons for instance.

My interest in night life and queer night life in particular, is linked with my own life. I grew up in a family in which going out was not possible. To illustrate how frustrated, I was about life: guess who came to my own graduation ball with me? My aunt. I wanted to explore “going out” for myself. There is no more philosophy. It is as simple and basic as that.

I first started to explore queer nightlife for myself with a camera at a time when the investigation of this part of society from a Haitian perspective did not exist. People on the streets told me about queer parties with mostly gay people and that was how I learned about these spaces. It was shortly after the earthquake and thus a moment when most of us were very suspicious, when it comes to photography. We had seen the power of photography and how it was used online. So that was something I worked with and on. I had to gain trust in a space I had only recently been introduced to and really thought about how to go about it. Most of the time I would not show faces for instance. But things are changing. Homophobia exists, but there is also more acceptance. Nowadays, when I am at a party people will come to me and ask me to take their picture. That means a lot. And: Voodoo can also be linked to queer spaces.

C&AL: You are planning to expand your series on Voodoo to include queer life in a lakou (a communal living system) outside of Port-au-Prince. Can you tell me more about these plans?

JA: A lot of times it seems as if we are not the Republic of Haiti but the Republic of Port-au-Prince. But the fact is that realities outside the capital exist, and I want to explore them. People are often surprised how queerness is expressed differently in other cities. They are surprised when they see solidarity, a respectful dynamic or a different way of how people live together. There are values that we from the city need to consider and learn from people in the countryside.

The series will also be a way to give us, Haitians, an additional perspective. If you start to talk about problems in Haiti, you might just end up killing yourself. But there are really great things happening and we need to value them. So again, I also want to do this for myself to learn. In addition, this form of exploration can also be an opportunity to empower other Haitians to use photography.

C&AL: What is the importance of nude-photography in your practice?

JA: Female nudity was constantly surrounding me. There would be naked women on big screens and on images in the street. I did not see male nudity and what I liked. So, I had to create it for myself.

My homoerotic series Erotes was born out of a joke. I said: “I have seen enough of this nudity. I want to explore sex”. I kept on saying it, as if it was impossible and started to ask myself who I could find to model in Port-au-Prince. Who could deal with the backlash? Ultimately, the series is also about reappropriating nudity. I do my best to portray nudity beautifully, with respect and softness. It can be fun. It does not have to be serious. This is life.

It’s also about archiving because you never know. Maybe in 20 years they might say “the queer community never existed”. So, it’s a constant fight. I never thought of myself as a militant. But my work absolutely has this dimension.

Marny Garcia Mommertz
is a writer and artist. She is interested in experimental forms of archiving and recipient of the PACT Zollverein Fellowship. She works as managing editor for Contemporary And América Latina.