Vodun, trying to grasp the ungraspable

Instead of regarding ‘primitive religion’ as a falsification of the true nature of matter, as compensation for and even as antagonistic to a true understanding of the physical universe, it might be useful to assume, as a hypothesis at least, that such religious systems propose ideas which are essentially correct and in harmony with the true nature of the physical universe.

The town of Ouidah - Benin is the spiritual capital of Vodun in West Africa. Vodun is their national religion. Presently there are an estimated 50 million worshippers worldwide. An important aspect of the religion is spirit possession, through which the spirits speak to the devotees only for a short time during the ceremonies. This trance mechanism is a way to heal and get advice about daily matters. From a western point of view, Vodun is seen as mystique religion often associated with black magic, giving way to much misunderstanding.

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I stayed with the 'Hounongan Zanzan Zinho Kledjé' family who adheres the Gambada fetish or the serpent spirit, the basis of the well-known Damballah cult in Haïti. In Vodun and related African diasporic traditions a primordial way to obtain a spiritual experience is by being possessed by the Iwa or spirit. I was fortunate to encounter and document this intense experience. During a ceremony I witnessed the individual trance of two devotees. The numerous uncontrollable muscle spasms, vocalizations and peculiar eye gazes showed me this was an unfeigned event.

In the Vodun conception of the universe and personhood, an individual is given identity, solidity and safety by being part of a web of relationships with other human beings, spirits and ancestors. Instead of making a distinction between the natural and supernatural, Vodun does not assume a dual universe. The quotidian and spiritual realm, life and death, hereafter and thereafter are fundamentally intertwined spheres. Vodun spirits or deities are therefore involved in everyday life. They settle arguments, take offerings to allay illness, relieve curses or bring luck.

The roots of Vodun are generally found in the former Dahomey Kingdom, now known as southern Benin, nearby Togo, on the Gulf of Guinea. Next to the Fon, the inhabitants of this former kingdom, the Yoruba, Ewe, Gun and other peoples, cross there roads in this region.

Generally, Vodun is a concentration of various African religious expressions. Taken cult by cult, region by region, they appear as variations of the same basic substratum. The major divinities in Vodun originate from the Fon and Yoruba pantheon. Congolese religion is based on the cult of the dead, the Yoruba center on the monotheism of a supreme God while polytheism mainly characterizes Orisha religion. Fon religions on their turn are based on divinities and spirit possession. It is therefore better to understand the multiplicity of influences of a particular Vodun cult instead of tracing it to a coherent and complete system.

From an outsider point of view, the most controversial and debated ritual, foremost important for the display of Vodun in the world, is spirit possession. Through spirit possession the devotee and cult spirit become one. These possessions can also serve as purification or renewal of oneself, or a reaffirmation of one’s identity. Through heated and intense dancing and signing to the beat of a drum, reactions of the Gods are provoked. Dances reveal the quality of the bond that links humans and gods. The members seem to immerse themselves in a hypnotic trance until one of the spirits starts to inhabit a dancing body. Especially during possession, the identity of the spirit is clearly discernible. A silent and quiet person may become flamboyant and dramatic, dancing with grand gestures.

I found it essential to strengthen this photographic essay by filming this experience and elaborating the reportage with an antropologically correct work concerning 'Vodun'. In 'Vodun in Benin' anthropologist Iris Roose tackles the various topics I photographed like f. ex. the fetish, the roots of Vodun and spirit possession, enabling a deeper understanding by challenging the inaccurate sensational character often perceived by the West.

Please read her elaborate approach here: Vodun in Benin

This is an ongoing project.

Personal interview by LEICA (september 2012) :

Essay published in :
ARTE AL LIMITE Magazine - Santiago - Chile
GUP Magazine - Guide for Unique Photography

GUP Magazine Portfolio : "His dense, black and white images alternate between beautiful, quiet, sometimes otherworldly portraits, and his contrasted, incredibly dynamic compositions which provoke an almost cinematic disquiet. A  lovely way to transcribe the spirit of a religion for which the realm of the living and that of the dead mingle on a daily basis, defined and bound not only by drums, dance and trances, but also a communal sense of safety, relief, and belonging."

Many thanks to :

Robert Monchen - for the strong edit of the teaser multimedia video
Iris Roose - for her anthropologist approach on the reportage by writing Vodun in Benin