Having traveled extensively in Haiti over the years, LIFE.com photographer Anthony Karen offers an inside look at Haitian Vodou, one of the world's most misunderstood religions.
For Karen, who has become known for his extensive documentation of "self-marginalizing" groups including the Ku Klux Klan, Vodou was a natural subject choice. "About 13 years ago," he told LIFE.com, "I was in a difficult, transitional point in my life. Out of nowhere, I felt Haiti calling to me. I traveled there, and saw two Vodou ceremonies in person. On the same trip, I discovered my passion for photojournalism."
To view Karen's incredible full gallery of a June 2011 Haitian Vodou ceremony, click here. (NOTE: Photos may be disturbing to some viewers)
Take a look at a selection of Karen's gallery, along with the photographer's thoughts on the ceremony, below.
All images and captions are shown courtesy of LIFE.com.
Of Vodou's unique appeal and power Karen tells LIFE: "It's raw, and it's primitive. The harmonious singing and rhythmic beats of the drums can be hypnotic to an open mind. I'm not like a lot of photographers, who take pictures without so much as talking to the people they document. I've shared in plates of communal offerings, danced with the priests [Hougans] and the priestesses (Mambos), and I've downed my fair share of special religious elixirs with them. I won't even get into the cleansing ritual preformed on me involving the blood of a chicken."
"Years ago," Karen says, "I watched a documentary about how, in the late nineteen seventies, the U.S. and [longtime Haitian dictator] Papa Doc Duvalier eradicated the entire Haitian pig population, ostensibly in order to fight a swine flu outbreak. The documentary touched on the role the pig plays in the country's economy and, even more, in Vodou rituals. The filmed stayed with me over the years -- along with Vodou's mystique. I was struck by how, all over the world, people are warned about how dangerous Haiti is, and about the evils of Vodou. I just had to go and see with my own eyes. I'm that type of person."
"It still bothers me," Karen says of the sacrifices he's seen. "But it's different, in kind, from other brutal acts toward animals that I've seen. Documenting the Canadian seal harvest was one of the most soul-wrenching experiences of my life, but in this situation, in Haiti, I know that I'm witnessing a religious practice, and at that moment, I'm a guest in their world."
"Most people in my family," Karen says, "and my friends back home worry about me when I go to these rituals. But I simply tell them: If the Being that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside can't protect me from your interpretation or conception of Vodou, then I'm praying to the wrong God -- don't you think?"
Of his take on Vodouisants forming a "marginalized" group, willfully living outside the mainstream of most cultures, Karen notes: "As with a lot of my work, whether it's the Klan, or the Westboro Baptist Church, with my Vodou pictures I'm hoping to offer another perspective on a subject that people might think they already know or understand. I'm the proverbial fly on the wall -- but I'm also someone who has found that conformity, and lack of curiosity, and uninformed assumptions about other cultures can be toxic."