Chadian photographer Tamibé Bourdanné challenges Western perspectives of Vodou with his ethnographic photography, and delicate approach to storytelling. Vodou is a much misunderstood religion, and is still stifled by colonisers who tried to erase it. Bourdanné’s fascination with the practice began during a residency in Benin Republic, where his mentor opened his eyes to Vodou culture.
Vodou is classified as 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 melting pot made up of a broad range of ancestral beliefs and traditions – which only came together to form this defined definition in response to the rampant colonialism faced by nations such as Haiti.
Desperate for some element of the divine in this terrible life that had been forced upon them, and some protection from the horrors that they faced, the local colonies coined Vodou. It’s predominantly centred around music, as worshippers dance and sing to beckon forth ancestral spirits, and was harnessed as a practice of freedom and rebellion, but now for many across the continent, it’s a way of life.
‘‘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.” The Vodou pantheon here 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 its early days, it survived countless attempts by westerners and colonisers to wipe it off the earth, and to erase any trace of its existence. Since then, it’s faced widespread misrepresentation, especially as Hollywood has a history of depicting it as demonic, mysterious and evil.
Bourdanné wanted to push back, by shedding light on its true followers. He set out to capture practitioners during the national Vodou festival in the capital of Cotonou, with the aim of documenting the reality of modern practitioners in a way that respected and humanised them – all while exploring what the religion really means to some of those that live it.
‘‘There was this family I met at the festival that 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, understanding this to be more than an opportunistic photography project.
Bourdanné also visited a family of practitioners who worship a deity named Mami Wata. For this, he had to involve himself a little more in order 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 a white cloth over my trousers, and to be topless like some of the men in the photos.’’
One of Bourdanné’s most memorable 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 recalls.
Born in Ivory Coast to a Chadian father and a Nigerian mother, Bourdanné moved to London at an early age. His multicultural roots fed his curiosity about different practices and perspectives, and photography became a tool for him to document this. For this series, he wanted the people he was shadowing to feel comfortable and able to open up, and he made sure to respect the boundaries of those that didn’t want to be photographed, or who felt their beliefs shouldn’t be captured through this lens.
In the west, popular culture often depicts Vodou practices as a ‘black magic’ or ‘witchcraft’, with sinister undertones and connotations. This is often because some rituals are known to use bloodletting or animal sacrifice. However many everyday practitioners, mostly praying for safety, health, and protection, use simplistic rituals which involve playing the drums, worshiping bodies of water, and using incense to ward off unwanted forces.
“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 the people here, in today’s world.’’