Centuries after the Tarot originated in mid-15th-century Europe, mystics and dabblers in the occult are still using the cards as a means of divination. And artists have made some wild reinterpretations of their magical illustrations, from Salvador Dali’s Universal Tarot to the Silicon Valley Tarot.
In what might be the 21st century’s most original take on the concept, Belgian documentary photographer Alice Smeets teamed up with Haitian artist collective Atiz Resistanz (resistant artists) to turn Tarot’s mystical paintings from the Rider Waite Tarot deck–originally designed in 1919 by artist Pamela Colman Smith–into real life scenes, photographed in the island’s ghettos. The artists exployed a mix of found and custom-crafted objects, using everything from human skulls to gold-painted chalices. And the series doesn’t just live on the Internet, either–Smeets turned the photographs into an actual deck of Tarot cards, called the Ghetto Tarot, which you can purchase on Indiegogo.
“For a long time, I have wanted to interpret the tarot deck with my photos,” Smeets, who herself has dabbled in Tarot reading, explains on the project’s Indiegogo page, “but 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.”
In 2008, Smeets won the Unicef Photo of the Year Award in 2008 for a shot of a little girl walking through a puddle in a slum in Haiti, and she’s been photographing the country’s residents ever since. By presenting its residents as queens, kings, knights, priestesses, and magicians, wielding swords and wearing crowns, the series seeks to cast the ghetto in a more positive and nuanced light than mainstream Western media usually does.
In doing so, the artists reclaim the word “ghetto.” In a video accompanying the project, the artists variously describe the ghetto as “where we find brotherhood,” “a family and a school, because I learn a lot from it,” and “life, happiness.” “The Ghetto Tarot is great, everyone agreed to work on it, because we understood and embraced the idea,” one artist says.
Every detail of the photographs is intentional and designed: Smeets made snowfall in the Five of Pentacles card from the loose down stuffing of a man’s disintegrating sleeping bag. The artists’ work features in the photographs, too: Mario Alito Denis’s black cat sculpture, made out of an old car tire, makes an appearance on the Queen of Wands card, and Andre Eugene’s sculptures made from trash, famous in Haiti, can be seen in the background of the Death card.
The city’s architecture, with its brilliant paint colors, makes for a striking backdrop. Paintings filled with Voodoo symbolism tile the background of the Ace of Wands. The “three of Pentacles” card is shot in front of a Catholic church in Cité Soleil, the country’s poorest slum, but poverty isn’t the focus here–instead, it’s a window into the art and mysticism that has long been part of Haiti’s cultural history.