'VOIL  JEANETTEN' 

 Every year on the Tuesday of the Carnival, all men of the Belgian town Aalst (Oilsjt) dress up like women. They call themselves 'Voil Jeanetten' (dirty Jennies), and they wear worn corsets, big breasts, and old fur coat and a lampshade on their head. They also tow an old pram with beer in it, and a bird cage on it's side.

Voil Jeanetten are a special kind of 'women', to express it mildly. They throw beer, swing with dead fish on rods, carry used toilet brushes and try to paint on you with a combination of wallpaper glu and feathers. Twice I had to run very fast because a Voil Jeanet was convinced that 'my camera was thirsty'.

In the last nine years I went to Aalst to capture this crazy party. After a while the Voil Jeanetten started to recognize me and invited me to drink my first beer of the day at 8AM in one of the smokey smelling bars near the square (read the story below).

A couple of years ago the Voil Jeanetten were recognized by UNESCO as immaterial world heritage.

 

 

 

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 once 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...’

 

My first impression of Aalst in the morning

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 crazy. 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.

The men of Aalst parade proudly, 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 photographer Diane 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.