Frederic Vanwalleghem: “We Shall Not Cease Exploring…” Photographing Vodun Experiences In Benin

Frederic Vanwalleghem is a Belgian photographer, born in 1978. Deeply interested in African diasporic traditions, and especially in Vodun, a subject that he has researched for years, he shares here part of a work that he still considers in progress.

In the course of the interview, Vanwalleghem explains how he tried to avoid exotic representations and get close to phenomena, which seem ungraspable. This led him also to define his own conception of photography, a tool that “forced him to start looking in a different way, in a more focused and conscient way”.

Q: Frederic, what is your background? How did you come to photography?

A: I vividly remember the time I played with my dad’s camera as a child. In secret, I often took his chrome Petri TTL out of the cupboard and looked through that viewfinder for hours. Through that hole I saw everything differently. I could make everything darker and out of focus by turning the rings around the lens. I still remember I was astonished by the loud sound of the shutter, and I was convinced I was making pictures like my dad did, even though there was no film inside.

In a later stage of life, I gradually got into photography when I started travelling outside of Europe. At 23, our senior class travelled to Havana, a mind-blowing experience that totally changed my perception of the world. Before I left, I got in touch with some Cuban students through the internet. One of those students was Raul, a student engineer. He showed me a lot of aspects of Cuban life and the socialist model. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to the harsh sides of life, like poverty, but also to wonderful social richness; this redefined my frame of reference. Finally, back in Europe, I realised that to some extent, I was living in an artificial bubble. In Cuba I saw people who had nothing, living with pride and having a strong ‘joie de vivre’. I missed this back home – superfluous luxury and status were the main aspirations of most people. What is the real wealth, I asked myself… Mixing in this new culture had a strong effect on me, psychologically, it made me less insular. For the first time, my own habitat felt somewhat distorted, constructed, and I started contemplating about the differences and similarities between both cultures. I really felt alive and had a clearer mind allowing me to put things in a better perspective. Being in touch with other cultures helps to loosen the chains of cognition, making easier to see something new in the old; the mundane is grasped from a more abstract perspective. As T.S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

After Cuba, I felt I needed to rebuild my mental concepts, not based anymore on assumptions, dogma, school or social rules but on true personal experiences. The urge to travel got stronger every year and the need to document what I found abroad gained importance. Photographing was the most natural step to take: I find it the best way to eternalize fleeting moments and encounters with people. After years I realised the photos taught me a lot about myself too. I can live the moment and re-live it through the results. Travelling, difference and culture “shock” is my secret tonic of creativity and my cameras never contradict, argue, object or protest. It’s the best companion (smiles)…

My photography career was a late call though. Years after I got my degree in Business Communications, I decided to change my path and took up photography classes in Ghent’s Royal Academy of Arts, in Belgium. Being confined to an office was really not my thing anymore, so I needed to blow up some bridges and dove into the unknown and started out as a photographer.

I was lucky to meet very good teachers who motivated me to push limits and investigate your own art and make personal choices. Later, I travelled back to the country of Castro and took a tiny old unobtrusive camera with me. I got fascinated by chance encounters and how pure an experience can be if you dive into it without any prior planning, knowledge and expectation. On the road you can meet the most fantastic people, get in touch with wonderful stories, insights and philosophies. A camera is the best way to grab all this wonder, still leaving space for interpretation. That is what makes the art of photography great to practise. It permits the photographer to prolong a moment because you can re-experience moments in the dark room. It also forced me to start looking in a different way, in a more focused and conscient way.

You know, photography is all about the process of it. It’s not so much about the outcome, but about the quest for movement, gestures, colours, facial expressions, instants… It’s best to let go expectations and results and just ‘go with the flow’. With an empty mind it’s far easier to notice special evocative moments. Enjoying yourself is what it’s all about. Just like a child enjoys pushing that shutter or looking through that little hole, being IN the moment. We can learn a lot through children’s ways.

Q: What led you to the complex realm of Vodun?

A: In Cuba I came across with Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion that originated from the slave trade. Also known as La Regla Lucumi, it’s a belief system merging the Yoruba religion – brought in to the new world by the enslaved West Africans – with Roman Catholicism. The first day I arrived in the capital, I stepped into the living room of a ‘casa particular’ (where you can rent a room) and noticed a man sitting there fully dressed in white. He was about to leave and settling his bill with the boss of the house. We started talking and I told him of my photographic quest, without realising he was a Canadian Santeria devotee learning to play the Batà drum. He smiled and wrote down a name and address, stood up and wished me luck. From that moment the ball started rolling and I travelled to that place. It was the name of his Santeria priest he wrote down on that flimsy piece of paper. From then on, I got somewhat initiated in the drumming sessions, events and rituals. Pure luck exists but when such situations happen over and over again, you start thinking that ‘chance’ just happens because it’s meant to happen. Plain coincidence doesn’t exist anymore in my vocabulary.

One of the first secret ceremonies I witnessed was in Trinidad. A group of people were packed in a small hot room, playing such a deep strong enchanting rhythm with the Batà drum, accompanied by women chanting call-and-response vocals. People were dancing with great gestures and fully entranced by the polyrhythm and incantations. It was amazing! I couldn’t only listen and stand still. First the legs, then the whole body started moving automatically. It was like listening live to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme but then ten times stronger. Call it inducing an altered state of consciousness or awareness heightening, that Afro-Cuban music sure is powerful.

Years later I had the opportunity to travel to Yorubaland in Nigeria and Benin, to look for the roots of diasporic traditions like Santeria, Condomble and Vodun. Together with a good friend we visited sacred places, witnessed ceremonies and drumming sessions and had a fascinating insight in the core of religions that now are scattered world-wide.

Q: I quote anthropologist Iris Roose who wrote a text accompanying your photographic essay: “Unable to grasp the inner mindset that Vodun is presenting, the western gaze is mainly – if not only – directed towards the exoticism of Vodun rites and spirit possessions”. So, how did you prepare yourself to avoid this pitfall? What were your intentions while preparing and realizing this reportage?

A: Research, books, cooperating with other creative people and finally letting go and just diving into the unknown.

I wanted to document the experience of the people and attentively focused on that aspect. What happened to them during the trance states? How did they behave? Is this a genuine experience? What impact did this ceremony have on them? How do I perceive the devotees before, during and after? What effect does this have on me? There was so much going on, so I stayed very close but at the same time not intrude or obstruct. Again, you can’t plan the outcome of such a complex subject, so letting go intentions and just being there is my way to create a ‘flow’.

My style is booking a plane ticket and leaving a week later. Book a room for the first night and start from there. Preparation can kill improvisation and therefore the freedom to react in a natural way. Of course, I choose subjects that interest me a lot so over the years I read up on diasporic traditions, Vodun and Yoruba. Abroad, I tend to visit local bookstores as books offer a wider overview and understanding of the matter. But once on the road, I try to unconditionally surrender to the moment. This works best for me.

I don’t see Vodun as exotic, maybe because of former experiences with native religions in other countries. Vodun is deeply rooted in the Beninese culture and has a lot of similarities with other religions actually, even with our Western one. Of course, the media and movie industry have given it a certain charisma, mostly linked to black magic. White magic doesn’t sell as much like black one. It’s that simple. What I experienced – in Cuba, Yorubaland (in the Nigerian part), Benin – or even with the Masai in Kenya – are people establishing, honouring and respecting a deeper universal connection with their family, nature and all that surrounds them. Even the idea of spiritual possession has a place in Tibetan Buddhism, where gods can temporarily inhabit the bodies of oracles.

Q: As Vodun is a very complex subject related to spiritual life, can you please explain how you managed to place yourself and your camera following situations which seem ungraspable (to quote your title)? What were the main photographic issues you had to find a solution to?

A: First of all, I didn’t know what I would find over there. I needed to be accepted by the community and most importantly, get the permission of the high priest. Not only to witness ceremonies but also to photograph. We talked for hours and I returned every day to visit him. He asked me a lot about my former travels and intentions. I told him about the Afro-Cuban ceremonies I had experienced and the fact that I was already happy being there. My previous experiences and laid-back attitude must have predominated his decision to invite me into his communal spiritual practices. I was so fortunate to being able to document this all and to witness the individual trance of two devotees. This rarely happens.

Another issue was the possible resistance my presence could create, creating a routine break and influencing the course of the day.

I tried to be as invisible as possible, but needed to be very close at the same time. Of course a photographer makes several personal choices in advance and during the shots – like usage of camera, format, colour or black/white, viewing point, aperture, etc. - therefore influencing the aesthetic result and even what happens in front of the lens. Nevertheless, trying to blend in and ‘not being there’ was crucial. During the inducement of the trance states of one woman – who was just outside the temple – I stayed in the doorway of the temple, out of sight. There, I waited for the right moments to pop outside and make some quiet shots.

Although I am sure that you should be able to make a strong image with any camera, I needed a small camera for this essay. The stealthy character of a camera is a huge help in the effort to be as invisible as possible. During rituals in the temple, for example, the ‘discrete mode’ of the Leica helped to respect the silence. A slapping mirror of a DSLR would really have been disturbing. It’s also fairly light. There was a lot of intense movement and action so I needed to photograph often from one hand and move the camera around.

Q:  Still about your title – Vodun, trying to grasp the ungraspable – if the Vodun experiences are something ungraspable, especially for someone who comes from outside this culture, what can photography do “at the end of the story”? Of course, this question raises the question of your general conception of photography, its possibilities, powers, limits. On your website a short video is also presented to introduce your photographic work. Do you think a film work can restore such experiences in a more nuanced way?

A: Photography is a means to get across a personal message, leaving space for several interpretations and creating dialogue. With yourself or the viewer. It casts light. It moves and creates tension. Being immersed in different environments, photographers bring the world closer to people. Practising arts or looking at art gives us the opportunity to think out of the box. We can redraw the lines of our personal reference frame, making them wider. Photography is all about making space. Making the ungraspable more and more graspable. Or at least try to. Or just photograph to photograph. Sometimes we don’t need to think so much about it and just shoot and enjoy the moment.

On the realisation of the essay: to complement it, I shot some short movies. I felt this subject deserved a wide body of information so I decided to work on a small multimedia piece together with Robert Monchen, a young video artist who is also intrigued by African cultures. As this project is ongoing, there will be possibly an edit of larger multimedia piece combined with new work on this subject. The photographic stills also went well together with the ambient sounds I recorded during the spirit possessions. We played with the ‘exotic’ factor (I mean, with the general perception most people have about Vodun) by also enclosing the images with these other elements. At the same time, I needed to invalidate this factor by working on a personally written anthropologic piece that was born through viewing and brainstorming sessions with anthropologist Iris Roose. I hope I escaped somewhat to the ‘pitfall’ you stated, by re-inventing the essay through involving other creative people.

Q: Finally, to you, what would be the ideal support to display Vodun, trying to grasp the ungraspable, I mean, in order to reconstruct the subject and your work in a way susceptible to open all their complexity and meanings?

A: I would love to travel back to Benin and continue to immerse myself in other native and diasporic communities. I think of Brazil, Haiti, Canada, Borneo. It would be nice to make a personal book one day, combining several essays with stories, poems, writings, drawings, artwork, etc. Also a small documentary film would be fantastic! As long as I enjoy myself, learn from others and can create awareness at the same time, I feel happy to do what I do.

Q:  This series was shot with a Leica M9 and Summilux 35mm 1.4 ASPH. Can you please tell us how these photographic materials helped you achieve this work?

A: I’d say through the size and ease of handling, as well as its superb quality. The way the Summilux lens handles in low-light situations is very satisfying. 35mm is an ideal focal length. It gives a good mix of classic out-of-focus rendering, modern sharpness as well as brilliant contrast. In some parts of Africa the light is just stunningly soft and colourful around sunset. When wide open, the LUX renders the light in a dreamy way. Of course every lens has its cons. I use an older version of the ASPH, so the frame lines don’t correspond with the ones in the viewfinder and the aperture ring isn’t that clicky as it should. The lens is also a bit bulky and lens barrel intrudes. It’s also heavier than the Summicron f. ex. But the extra stop really is necessary to have. Those are the only minuses, of course because it’s second-hand. Since I bought the M9 after the M6, the Summilux is the only lens I use and have. I love to work on f/1.4 and strongly emphasizing certain elements in the frame. The beautiful out of focus backgrounds also add to the magic. Together with my old 6×6 Rolleiflex it’s one of my favourite cameras.

As I said before in the interview, the unobtrusive character played an essential role. The compact body and lens are easy to carry around, saves me from backaches and the intuitive handling is great. It’s also light enough to make more dynamic framing from the hip and even taking pictures unnoticed. You need a lot of practise, but focusing using the metering lines on the lens is a good help. When I’m on the road, I always use black tape to hide the logo and model name. Most people see it then as a small consumer camera.

In 2009 I travelled to Iceland during Christmas. I tested the M9 together with Summilux lenses and the Noctilux. They handled very well in the extreme winter cold; they never let me down, even when it was minus 16° Celsius. In West-Africa I also took it, along on long life vest-less boat trips on the rugged Indian Ocean. I can assure you: that was not easy ride!

Q: What are your next projects?

A: Continuing this project, concentrating on portrait and documentary photography and keep on making personal artwork. And, of course, roaming the world and enjoying photography.

Thank you for your time, Frederic!

-Leica Internet Team

To see more of Frederic’s work, click here.