Life And Afterlife in Benin (Benin)

Ephoto of 2 men in handcuffsdited by Alex Van Gelder, published by Phaidon
Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

This is a picture-book, of black and white photographs of citizens of Benin in the 1960s, before I was born, and the 1970s, when I was a middle-class American child without a clue about where Benin (then the Republic of Dahomey) was on my father’s high-school globe. But it would be a mistake to dismiss this picture-book as simplistic, or as easily read. The editors, a mix of white foreigners and black Beninite photographers, did not make the mistake so many other similar books have made, of giving no context. There is a preface, and an afterword, of some length.

The work consists of portraits and candid snaps taken by 8 Benin photographers, one of whom is a woman. They have captured a great contrast in the lives of the people of this African nation–black and white is high contrast by definition, so tres apropos.

Voodoo Priestess
Voodoo Priestess (Camera flash is mine, not the original photog’s.)

They’ve collected photos of weddings, deathbed portraits, police photographs, erotica (I was not very fond of these photos), first communions, Voodoo priestesses and studio portraits that the subjects commissioned. Voodoo, by the way, did not start in Haiti. It started in Benin. I did not know this.

The Photographers

  • Benoit Adjovi
  • Jean Agbetagbo
  • Joseph Moise Agbodjelou
  • Bouraima Akodja
  • Leono Ayekoni
  • Christophe Mahoukpe
  • Sebastien Mehinto (a.k.a. “Pigeon”)
  • Edouard Mehome
  • Camille Tchawlassou (the female photographer)

The Subjects

Old woman
This woman appears to be yelling at the camera.

The people in these photographs rarely look pleased. All right, never. They stare into the camera with a variety of expressions that I, with my Western outlook, tacted as sulky, worried, suspicious, sad, angry, and sometimes downright pissed. Some appear to be ashamed of having terrible teeth. It is good to remember that not all cultures expect that you will beam a giant white corn-fed smile into the camera, American style.

I remember that when I first landed in Japan, and was floating my resume around, a picture of my smiling face attached with a paperclip, a more knowledgeable expat predicted total failure. Why? Japanese employers think if you’re smiling you’re not serious, he explained. I had to have another photo taken in which I stared seriously into the camera!

A man and his family, says the caption on this photo
A man and his family, says the caption on this photo. That tells me a lot about the photographer. Why not, a woman and HER family? Or, a family? I love the way the dog is part of the family. And of course, the doll.

I was interested in the contrasts between various photos in this book. Obviously the men (and it was always men) in the police photographs are not happy. They’re in handcuffs. But some of them radiate righteous outrage, while some just look scared and defeated. One has been arrested by barefoot policemen who suspect him of grave-robbing. He’s been made to pose with a skull. But I wondered about others. Could they have been arrested for protesting against an unjust government, like some of the “Mau Mau” in Kenya, who were then sent to British-run concentration camps? Were some of them innocent?

I didn’t expect the parents and loved ones posing in the deathbed portraits to look happy either. But the brides…that was a shock. Were these arranged marriages? One photo appears to be of children dressed in a groom’s suit and bride’s dress. They don’t look like they’re even 12 years old.

Possible child bride and child groom
Are these children?

Some of the photos  show Beninites in Western dress or with Western props such as transistor radios, while others show people in traditional costume doing traditional things. Some are posed together, creating an inner tension and reflecting the changing times in the country. There are photographs of Voodoo priestesses in traditional paint, next to Catholic schoolgirls in their white communion dresses.

What We Take Away, And What We Bring

In graduate school, my thoughtful professor Greg S. told us that all readers bring their own experience to a narrative, and interpret it thereby. The same can be said of these photographs and how I have interpreted them. I wanted to read at least one picture-book on a (to me) foreign country, because I thought a simple, unfiltered picture would be worth a thousand words, and would place less of the writers’ own interpretations on my views. That I could get closer to the subjects. And while this is true, it is also true that how I see these faces, this body language, etc. is largely a product of my own culture and experience.

Tradition meets change.
Tradition meets change.

For example, in some African and Asian cultures, people shake their  heads to mean Yes, and nod their heads to mean No. You can just imagine how confusing this is to people from the West, and visa-versa.

Life and Afterlife

I’m sure some of the people in this book have since passed away, so being pictured here is a sort of afterlife for them. Since some Dahomey people believed that photographs stole a person’s soul and kept them trapped in the pages, that’s another sort of afterlife, albeit a seemingly unhappy one. But the deathbed photos were commissioned on purpose by the families, who wanted some sort of resemblance of their loved ones to live on. They have, and they do. Caveat: I could have done without the really disturbing erotica in this book, which looked to my eyes like underage kids in bothersome poses sometimes with adults. UGH UGH UGH

Three white Communion gloves.

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