VOIL JEANETTEN TOUR
Every year on the Tuesday of the Carnival, the ‘Stoet van de Voil Jeanetten’ (procession of the Voil Jeanetten) proceeds through the Belgian town of Aalst (Oijlst). In this parade, all men dress as women with corsets, prams and broken umbrellas.
Taking portraits during this day requires a special skill, with beer, dead fish and chips with syrup and wallpaper glue flying through the air constantly.
Scroll down to read how I first ended up in Aalst, and why I keep coming back.
How I ended up in Aalst
Sometimes I'm like a headless chicken, and start doing photo series without any kind of preparation. That’s why I drove to Antwerp to photograph the Carnival. Because the city lies far below the rivers (a Dutch typical indication for a good Carnival) I was convinced the party would go off.
But once in Antwerp, the streets were quiet and abandoned. I roamed the city, sometimes mistakenly thinking people were dressed up. Disappointed I went into a café and sat down at the bar. ‘What’s up with you?’ the barman asked. When I told him my story, he told me people of Antwerp never have and never will celebrate Carnival. I cursed my lousy preparation. But then the barman gave me a tip: ‘Go to Aalst, be surprised...’
And so I drove to Aalst the next day, a city of 55,000 inhabitants, about 20 kilometres west of Brussels. Although it was only 9 o’clock in the morning, at a crossroads I nearly ran over a guy dressed up as a mattress. In an effort to avoid me he ran into a lamppost. I parked my car and walked to the town square. There, at the stairs of the city hall, I found a guy dressed only in his underpants, his dress having slipped down. ‘Want a beer?’ he muttered. There was still a sound of music coming from the bars. ‘I wouldn’t mind kissing you!’ I heard as I managed to duck just in time from pursed men lips with lipstick and an breath smelling of alcohol. I decided to stick around for the day.
People from Aalst, or Oijlst as the city is called with Carnival, see Carnival as a way to get fucked up. Everyone takes part in it, from the bank director to the local carpenter. It starts on the Sunday morning and it is said the people don’t sleep until the next Wednesday.
‘Don’t believe everything they say dear’, says a man who claims to have been living on alcohol for the past 48 hours. Day and night become one. But the grey haze that covers the faces of the locals, caused by days of drinking, smoking and sleep deprivation, becomes visible in the morning sun.
According to one of the locals, the fact that all men are dressed up as women has nothing to do with travesty, but all with history. As the region was poor, men could not afford to buy a costume for the Carnival; as a result they’d dress up in the clothes of their wives. These men were called ‘Voil Jeanetten’ or dirty Janetten. But the line of demarcation is thin: a real Voil Jeanet does not wear heels, though a lot of men do so anyway. The discussion about what is travesty and what is ‘Voil Jeanet’ is reoccurring each year. ‘To some, each year for a day it is a furtive dream come true’, a Voil Jeanet wearing high heels confides.
The men of Aalst parade on their heels, wave their hands and rub their breasts. But besides that, they drink like men, throw around wallpaper glue and toilet brushes, try to make you eat dead fish and think your camera could use a sip of beer. Aalst certainly isn’t a place for a photographer who likes to stay in control and can’t handle rude jokes.
The parade reminds me of the photos of Diana Arbus. The crazy unpredictable life where friendship, desires and forgetting the
daily life predominate make that these days in Aalst intrigue me. This is why when I can, every year I drive to this city. At 5am I leave the quiet and dark Amsterdam behind, to have my first beer at 9am in a bar where people have been in party mode for the last 48 hours. There’s no such thing as a morning coffee.
After all these years the Voil Jeanetten are starting to recognise me. I like it. And every year, at the end of the day, I’m thankful my camera’s still working.