Vodou is a much misunderstood religion, with the way it’s often been depicted in western popular culture, as well as the way it was stifled by colonizers who tried to erase it, contributing to this. Chadian photographer Tamibé Bourdanné was keen to challenge this perspective, and visited groups of worshipers in Benin. He tells writer Vincent Desmond why he felt it was important to shine a light on the religion’s followers and capture their true practices.
‘‘It's an exploration.’’ says photographer Tamibé Bourdanné, speaking of his latest series, which focuses on Vodou practitioners in the Benin Republic. “Vodou is very present in today’s world and I wanted people to see that,” he says. His fascination with the practice began when he was part of a residency in the Benin Republic, and his mentor opened his eyes to the Vodou culture there.
Vodou is a religion largely practiced by the peoples of Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Nigeria. In Benin, Vodou is the state religion, and is followed by a large percentage of the population. It’s a mixing pot made up of a broad field of ancestral beliefs and traditions, which only came together to form this defined religion in response to the rampant colonialism faced in nations such as Haiti. Desperate for some element of the divine in this terrible life that had been forced upon them, for some protection from the horrors they were facing, the locals in the colonies coined Vodou. It’s centered around music, as worshippers dance and sing to beckon forth ancestral spirits. It was born as a religion of freedom and rebellion, and now for so many across the continent, it’s a way of life.
In its early days, it survived countless attempts by westerners and colonizers to wipe it from the earth, to erase its existence. Since then, it’s faced widespread misrepresentation, as Hollywood painted it as demonic or evil, and Bourdanné wanted to push back, to shed light on its true followers. He set out to capture practitioners during their national Vodou festival in the capital of Cotonou, with the goal of documenting the reality of modern practitioners in a way that respected them and humanized them, all while exploring what the religion really means to those who follow it.
The Vodou pantheon in the Benin Republic traditionally consists of Mahou, the supreme being, and hundreds of spirits that rule over particular domains and phenomena (such as war, healing, and justice). In Benin, it is a way of life, a way for people to understand and interact with the forces around them. Vodou has historically never had a negative or a positive connotation in these parts, it merely exists as a fact.
Born in Ivory Coast to a Chadian father and a Nigerian mother, Bourdanné moved to London at an early age. His multicultural roots gave birth to his curiosity about different religious practices and perspectives, and photography became a tool for him to explore this. For this series, he wanted the people he was shadowing to feel comfortable and open up, and he made sure to respect the boundaries of those who didn't want to be photographed or who felt their religion shouldn’t be viewed through a lens.
“There was this family I met at the festival who I was really interested in photographing” he says. “I went to their house, and they were conducting their own rituals with their kids. Then the dad turned to me and said, ‘What we do in here is quite powerful, and I don't think the God we serve is going to appreciate this.’” So Bourdanné left, as he understood that this was more than just a photo opportunity.
Bourdanné also visited another family of practitioners; part of a group who worship a deity named Mami Wata. For this, he had to involve himself a little more to be welcomed in. “They invited me to document a thanksgiving ritual ceremony,” he says. “I waited for some time before we got to start shooting as they had to pray to Mami Wata to allow the shoot to take place. I also had to wear the white cloth over my trousers, and to be topless like some of the men in the photos. It was probably the most intense shoot I’ve done with Vodou worshipers, but it was a great experience.”
Bourdanné’s most intense moments came while shooting a particular group called “zangbeto.” “As I was trying to get closer to the masquerade, a very tall man looked me dead in the eyes and told me ‘the devil is here.’ That really stuck with me,” he says.
Vodou culture is largely misunderstood in the west, thanks to depictions in popular culture that paint it as some sort of “Black Magic” or “Witchcraft,” but it almost never matches its sinister reputation. Bourdanné heard that some sects resort to using bloodletting or animal sacrifices to establish direct communication channels with God or to ask for more drastic divine favors. The everyday practitioners, though—mostly asking for things like safety, health, protection—are often content with the more simplistic rituals which involve playing the drums, worshiping bodies of water, and using incense to ward bad spirits away.
“Vodou culture has gone through so much, and yet it is still very much out there,” says Bourdanné. “Religion as a whole in Africa is so dynamic, always evolving. What we had in the past is much different from what we have now. That’s why it’s important for us to show what faith means to people here, in today’s world.”