November 5, 2021
THE GOLDEN HOUR OF HAITI
Photography by Vanessa Cass
Words by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico
Vanessa Cass is a single mother of two that has been living and working in Haiti for over twenty years, who has an outrageous passion for street photography. What brought Vanessa to Haiti, was an unfortunate set of circumstances. Vanessa was seven years old when she came to live in Haiti with her mother, older sister, and brother after her mother and father’s abusive marriage ended in a difficult divorce. Vanessa’s mother uprooted her three children and moved from Silver Spring, Maryland in the United States, to Haiti where her grandmother took them in. It has not always been easy assimilating into the culture, Vanessa was viewed as an outsider for many years, still feeling at times she is a square peg in a round hole, Vanessa has softened those corners and has found inspiration in the connections she has made, becoming a lovely thread in the colorful tapestry of Haiti.
The Caribbean Island of Haiti has had a turbulent past, much like Vanessa’s. Originally inhabited by the Taino Kingdom, history changed on the then Island of Hispaniola when Christopher Columbus landed on it’s shores on December 6, 1492. Over the years of European exploration and exploitation, Spanish, French, African and American influences, it wasn't until 1804 that the Haitians took their independence back. Haiti has been plagued throughout history with natural disasters causing catastrophic destruction, combined with the political unrest creating many challenges for the people living there, poverty being one of the many effects they face. In spite of all of these harsh realities, Vanessa sees another country, one that enchants her and inspires Vanessa’s dramatic photographic style of work.
Vanessa says, “Haiti is a country bursting with art, culture, music, food, a lot of faith, with a little bit of VooDoo.“ A Jack of All Trades, Vanessa has found herself adapting to the changes in her country and it has actually given her the opportunity to explore many different career paths. She grew up in her family's antique business, and as an antique dealer she learned many things that helped to shape her future. Vanessa dabbles in painting, writing, curating, graphic design, and most recently opening a gourmet finishing salts and small batch hot sauce business. All of these passions bring Vanessa a great deal of pleasure. Vanessa told me “One day it dawned on me that I didn't have to limit myself to just doing one thing, art, photography, cooking, curating, writing, graphic design, I realized I could actually do everything all at the same time, and so I do!” Vanessa believes it helps to stay busy.
So where did Vanessa find her passion for photography?
Vanessa started studying art and was classically trained by the painter Roland Dorcely, who was himself trained by Pablo Picasso. Dorcely told Vanessa, “Painting is not your milieu, you do have talent but there is another part of the art world that is better for you, and everything you have learned with me will serve you when you find it.”
Vanessa did find her art through photography. The inspiration for Vanessa’s work is reflected in her statement, "Faith is what gives the people of Haiti an incredible resilience to rise above and deal with a life that is difficult for anyone to understand that has not experienced life’s hardships. It shows in their impeccable starched and pressed clothes for church on Sunday mornings. It shows in the care they take in setting up their makeshift shops, shoeshine stands, and much more. This is the time of ‘Golden Hour', when I like to walk the streets and observe. The shadows at this time of day are amazing, and seem to have a life of their own. They tell a magical story that can't be heard, but is felt. It shows you how strong, beautiful, and wild the people of Haiti are.”
After looking at her mentor Roland Dorcely’s paintings, I saw a familiar quality in Vanessa’s work. The contrast in images, the hot bright light of the sun, and the deep darkness of the shadows, the faceless people are often reflected in Vanessa’s photographic work. Looking back on it she realizes the impact he had in her life. Vanessa’s first camera was from a friend and street photographer, and her first workshop was with Eric Kim. Once she had an eye for the street, there was no turning back.
Historically Haitians really don't like to be photographed. Vanessa respects their beliefs and traditions and has developed her own style of shooting, stepping back to take in the larger view and to allow her subjects respectful space. Vanessa photographs her subjects in stride against textured walls of light and shadow. Vanessa admits, “Sometimes I get caught, get yelled at, but with a smile and a compliment, I usually get let off the hook, and they don't mind so much.” Vanessa’s photographs embrace the contrasts reflected in life on the street. The bright angelic white, not only familiar but comfortable with the darkness, not afraid of it, the darkness is as much a part of them as is the light.
The mood changes in Haiti to reflect current events in the country. “When things are going well you can see it,” says Vanessa, “Everyone is smiling, there’s a pep in everyone's step. When there is unrest or a catastrophe, the mood is very gloomy, but their resiliency is the strength that keeps the Haitians marching on”. Vanessa has lived, seen and photographed many things in the streets of Haiti. Being a single mother raising two children in Haiti has had its difficulties. Her family has witnessed horror, and tragedy, but they have found their own strength and resiliency from the people that have become their home and community.
Haiti has made Vanessa tough, wise, empathetic, yet at the same time strong, and determined to fight for change. Photography and the Haitian people have been a constant source of inspiration for Vanessa and is why she is proud to call Haiti her home. This is not an ending to Vanessa’s story, there are many chapters to come. Vanessa is currently getting her degree in art history with a concentration in postmodern photography, and will continue to share her art and unique style as an inspirational woman artist and photographer.
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