Growing up with radio and film documentary makers as parents, Gael Turine witnessed first-hand the economic difficulty of such a lifestyle. He began his studies in Political Science to avoid following in his parents’ footsteps, but his desire to become a photojournalist became too great for Gael to ignore. He quickly switched to a three-year degree program in photography and began traveling to and working in places like Afghanistan, Angola and Eritrea as a student on behalf of NGOs. A member of the VU’ agency, Gael continues to travel the world capturing life through the lens of his Leica cameras, doing what he has always been drawn to: documentary photography.
Gael’s latest project, Voodoo, took him to Benin, Haiti and the USA to photograph the rituals and ceremonies of the Voodoo cult. The images from his journey have culminated in a book published by Lannoo titled simply “Voodoo”, as well as an exhibition which opened at the Kunsthal Rotterdam, and is on tour until 2012. A selection of his Voodoo images are featured in the April issue of LFI Magazine. Gael shares his story with us about his project taking an intimate look at a practice often seen as sorcery and his photographic journey leading to it.
Q: What camera and equipment do you use and how would you describe your photography?
A: Two M6s and one MP mounted with 28mm, 35mm and 50mm lenses are in my arsenal. As a documentary photographer, I’m part of this large array of styles and approaches that photojournalism encompasses. I do my best to have a calm visual approach and to stay close to the reality I’m shooting. I am not a fan of visual effects and facilities. A combination of aesthetic and content must be found; one shouldn’t kill the other. Of course, in a long sequence like a book, some images will be more informative than well-shaped, but these are pretty rare. I really try to keep images that are both well-designed and have interesting content. I strive to stay close to the people I’m photographing so I’m always within reach. I try to be among them, physically. I need to feel all elements that make the atmosphere of a particular situation, place or event.
Q: How did you end up as a pro photographer doing documentary and reportage work?
A: After two years studying Political Science in Brussels, I quit to take a six month trip to Madagascar. During that experience I decided to go back to my previous and original wishes, which was making documentaries using photography, film and radio. Then slowly I turned to photography. Three months after my return from Madagascar, I began a three year degree program in photography. The school’s Photography Department was clearly dedicated to documentary and reportage so it was an easy decision. I already knew exactly where I wanted to go as a photographer and in what field I wanted to work. As a student I was sent to Afghanistan, Angola and Eritria for NGOs. These three experiences and reportages gave me the opportunity to meet photo editors for magazines. I turned pro the day I got my diploma.
Q: Your Madagascar trip seemed to pull you towards photography, but when did you first become interested in it?
A: My parents are film and radio documentary makers so I first became interested in photography as a child. Their lifestyle was pretty tough, but fascinating. When I decided to follow in their footsteps, I didn’t know if I wanted to concentrate on film or photography. This decision came quite later on, as I mentioned earlier. Because I wanted to work alone and autonomously and not as part of a film crew, I decided on photography. Additionally, I have always loved the richness of the still image, but to make a living with photography was a pretty large challenge. I saw and lived through my parents’ experience in this type of life and it was pretty hard, economically, for them. That’s why I began university studies at first, because that kind of life seemed scary. It soon became clear that I couldn’t deny my own, profound wishes.
Q: Having been exposed to documentary work early on, was there a particular photographer in the genre that inspired you?
A: The entire field of photojournalism interested and attracted me. I saw hundreds of books, visited shows and, of course, tried to meet professional photographers. I did meet some, but one of them was pretty important: Carl de Keyzer. When I was in second-year after I came back from Afghanistan, I called him. He agreed to meet with me and review my photos. The one hour spent looking at the way he edited, selected and sequenced the images that I showed him was a definitive experience for me. I made an edit of five images in a group of 60, and two of these five were “good photos” he said. The entire moment was a real learning experience. Carl later became a friend and one day I explained to him how important that moment was. He was quite surprised because at that time he was a teacher in a photo academy in Ghent so it was a usual thing for him, but a unique moment for me. Later on, I met several good and professional photographers and they all taught me something important in their own ways.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: It began when I was in the second year of my photography degree program and I used to work with an old Nikon. There was a pro photo shop nearby that carried Leicas. They were beautiful, but too expensive for the student that I was. Reading books and watching movies about photographers made me want to try this famous camera. At that time, I lived in an apartment during my studies and was working as a barman to pay my bills. I decided to take on one more night shift per week to buy a second-hand Leica Camera and that’s what I did. The first one was a Leica MP with a 35mm lens. That was the beginning of a story between Leica Cameras and myself that is still in progress.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your book, “Voodoo”?
A: This is a book on the Voodoo cult and, more precisely, on the route of Voodoo from its African origins to Haiti and then the United States. It’s a compilation of about 100 photos that relate the spiritual dimension of Voodoo and reveal the deep link between its African roots and Haiti. The book shows the similarities and differences between Voodoo rituals in those three different regions. I wanted to be “on their side” so to say, not like a press photographer looking for the most impressive pictures to get a double spread, which is the usual kinds of images we can see on Voodoo. I wanted to show the largest range of faces of Voodoo.
Q: You document some very intimate rituals. How did people react to your presence and what did you do to minimize your affect on the situation?
A: I should ask them about my presence, but I would say that most of the work, as a photographer and for the kind of photography that I’m doing, is related to behavior, look, gesture, and energies. I tried to be as discreet as possible, not to interrupt and to stay close to the people and the action in order to feel what was going on there. I never stay out of things. It is a compromise between being a part of and staying out of it.
Q: Having photographed in three different locations, what were the biggest differences you found in each country and what remained constant in all three places?
A: As they all share the same pantheon of Voodoo gods (spirits), there is a series of names that are the same in all the three locations. Also the chronology of rituals during ceremonies, the Voodoo spiritual drawings, the concept of offering to the spirit, the drums, dances and the trance remain constant. Regarding the offering, the practice of the sacrifice is very important in all three locations, but in Florida, where the Haitian diaspora numbers hundreds of thousands and where I did my shooting in the United States, they aren’t able to do the sacrifice because it’s strictly forbidden by law. Instead, they ask a Voodoo priest in Haiti to make it, if it is absolutely necessary. In the USA, ceremonies can’t be outdoors and open to everyone so they have rooms dedicated to it. Ceremonies in Benin are very brut and pure, very native and “rooty”, with a special taste of formality as African traditions are. Haitian ones are much more improvised and disorderly.
Q: What sparked your interest in Voodoo as a subject for your photos?
A: From an editorial point of view, this subject has a variety of interests: culture, religion, anthropology and history. It gave me the opportunity to dive into a world completely different from mine. I had to open up all my human senses and feelings to understand and measure the importance of such a practice that is basically seen as sorcery. Visually, Voodoo is a world of imagery, which is great for a photographer, but can also be a trap. It is quiet easy to shoot Voodoo rituals and make some nice and impressive images, but seems to be much more difficult to photograph the depth and spirituality of it. It is all a matter of suggestion.
Q: It is my understanding that practitioners of Voodoo are generally very private and not very open to outsiders. How did you gain access and permission to photograph these rituals?
A: I met a few Houngans and Mambos (male and female Voodoo priests) who took the time to listen and understand my project. They gave me permission to be there and shoot. As I travelled to Haiti, Benin and USA, I could tell them what my project was about, essentially the route and the history of the Voodoo cult, and even show them some photos to make them understand. Maybe they saw and felt that I was on their side, that I wanted to respect and show the Voodoo cult as a religion, not as a wild and dark practice. Those priests then introduced me to others.
Thank you Gael!
-Leica Internet Team