For the first time since the start of the pandemic, people gathered in the streets of Binche in Wallonia, Belgium, donning costumes of red, yellow, and black. The city prepares year-round for the folkloric tradition of La Carnaval de Binche, which takes place three days prior to Lent.
Photographer Annick Donkers found a spot on the sidewalk and waited a while for the procession to start. Although currently based in Kasterlee, Belgium (in the province of Antwerp), it has been more than a couple of years since she last attended. After spending the last decade in Mexico City, Annick set out to capture the ambiance she already knew, but with a fresh perspective.
Carnaval is a big thing in Belgium. It is very traditional, and one the oldest carnivals in Europe, protected by UNESCO (Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity), in the French-speaking part of Belgium. And for me, the most beautiful.
I was really excited to see how this tradition is still vivid and continues with other generations.
Celebrations start on Dimanche Gras (Great Sunday). The costumes on this day vary each year, following a theme influenced by politics or pop culture. The last time Annick was able to attend all three days was back in 2013:
The theme was a French movie called “La Grande Vadrouille,” a movie about WWII with famous French actors Louis de Funès and Bourvil.
The following day, Lundi Gras, is dedicated to children and youth. At the center of Carnaval, however, are the Gilles who appear on Mardi Gras, along with sailors, harlequins, and pierrots. The clown-like costume of the Gille – which is made of the colors of the Belgium flag – is traditionally worn by boys and men.
One day I followed a Gille in the early morning to see the preparations at home, and how they go – accompanied by tambour – to the houses of other Gilles. They gather before entering town to have a luxurious breakfast of oysters and champagne.
Once breakfast is over, the Gilles put on their masks and head to the town hall. They take them off once morning ends, and in the afternoon, they wear tall white hats made of ostrich feathers.
According to a legend, there is a link to the colored and feathered costumes of the Incas. The Carnaval has roots that go back to the Middle Ages when Marie of Hungary introduced exotic costumes to welcome her brother Charles V.
There is always a mass of people around the Gilles, like family members and friends: the wife accompanying the Gille, people carrying the oranges, reporters, and policemen.
In the afternoon, the Gilles throw oranges to the crowd. To catch one is a symbol of good fortune, but tossing any back is a jinx of bad luck. Annick stayed alert, shielding her camera from any impact with the citrus. Metal guards shield most windows in the area for the same reason.
Annick envisioned capturing certain images but ultimately knew it would be impossible to stick to specifics while navigating the crowd, and the oranges. As a social documentary photographer – as well as a portrait and travel photographer – she embraced the day as it came.
I wanted to let myself be surprised… to see if I could see things in a different light this time. I tried to capture the moments that were not posed, the emotions as well as the reactions of the people watching the spectacle.
I traveled to the other side of the world to cover traditions but I feel proud to show what is going on in my own country. I learned that there is a lot to discover in Belgium.
See more of Annick’s work on her website.
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