Behind the lens in Benin: The heat, dust and drums of Voodoo
Editor’s note: Award-winning Getty Images photographer Dan Kitwood traveled to the West African nation of Benin earlier this year to photograph an annual Voodoo festival celebrated there. The colorful photos from his journey have been featured in The Guardian, The Baltimore Sun and Bordermail; the entire edit is available on Getty Images.com. The following is what Dan had to say about what he saw.
The dancers of Ouidah
The little known nation of Benin is tiny by African standards, sat in the gulf of Guinea hemmed in by the might of Nigeria on its Eastern flank and Togo to the West, with the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean lapping along its palm fringed beaches. This former French colony is rich in colonial history; home to the “Slave Coast” of Ouidah, and the spiritual birthplace of Voodoo.
Voodoo, or Vodun as it known locally, is an officially recognised religion, claiming 40 percent of the population as adherents. Shrouded in mystery and often misunderstood, voodoo conjures up visions of James Bond Villains, dolls studded with pins and malevolent Gods. These visions are the creations of Hollywood movies. Vodun is about people’s ancestral past, their culture and their connection with the land. An ancient and complex belief system of worship and obligation that is increasing in popularity as an expression of African identity in the 21st Century.
During the week running up to the festival in Ouidah, in the intense tropical heat of this small coastal town, the sense of occasion is palpable. In the small streets, alleyways and in the shady courtyards, the town begins to come alive. Nigerian ‘Egungun’ spirits shuffle through the narrow streets in intensely colourful dress, imparting wisdom in their inimitable high pitched ‘squeaky’ voices. Speaking quickly, they confront passersby who fall to their knees and with their head cocked to one side listen intently. The ‘Egungun’ are believed to be possessed by spirits of dead ancestors placed upon earth to guide the living and must be treated with respect.
Devout worshippers gather from across Benin as well as Togo and Nigeria, along with the odd curious traveller, descending on the town of Ouidah and surrounding villages to witness a week of intensely colourful celebration, frenetic whirling dancing and rhythmic performance.
The constant beat of drumming throughout the day and into the night draws people into the secluded courtyards of Voodoo priests to discover secret ceremonies in hidden shrines and temples. The real ceremony begins with the beating of drums, then whistles are blown to summon the gods and fetishes are placed on the ground.
Animals play a major role as they are selected and sacrificed, the blood poured on the ground as offerings. It is an intense scene and a spectacle not often witnessed by outsiders. By now a crowd has gathered. Heat and dust combine with the drums throbbing hypnotic call and, without warning, several worshippers fall into a state of trance; possessed, they throw themselves to the ground with complete abandonment, for they are the true believers. They rise again, they dance – dancing deep into the night as their ancestors did before them, in a communion with the ancient spirit of Africa.
Images in slider include:
1. A man enters a state of trance during a Voodoo ceremony on January 7, 2012 in Ouidah, Benin. Ouidah is Benin’s Voodoo heartland, and thought to be the spiritual birthplace of Voodoo or Vodun as it is known in Benin. Shrouded in mystery and often misunderstood, Voodoo was acknowledged as an official religion in Benin in 1989, and is increasing in popularity with around 17 percent of the population following it. A week of activity centred around the worship of Voodoo culminates on the 10th of January when people from across Benin as well as Togo and Nigeria decend on the town for the annual Voodoo festival. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
2. Egungun spirits perform during a Voodoo ceremony on January 11, 2012 in Ouidah, Benin. The Egungun are masqueraded dancers that represents the ancestral spirits of the Yoruba, a Nigerian ethnic group, and are believed to visit earth to possess and give guidance to the living. Ouidah is Benin’s Voodoo heartland, and thought to be the spiritual birthplace of Voodoo or Vodun as it known in Benin. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
3. A dancer in a state of ‘Trance’ performs at a Voodoo Ceremony on January 9, 2012 in Ouidah, Benin. A week of activity centred around the worship of Voodoo culminates on the 10th of January when people from across Benin as well as Togo and Nigeria decend on the town for the annual Voodoo festival. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)