Photographer Benjamin Schmuck honours the Voodoo culture of Benin and West Africa

With the help of Benin-based painter Augustin Sanou, Benjamin captures the sprawling philosophy and rituals of kinship in Voodoo.

15 March 2022

One quick glance at Benjamin Schmuck’s work and it’s immediately made clear that the Paris-based photographer is a master of colour. “I am very attracted to the use of highly saturated colours,” Benjamin tells us when we catch up with him on his recent publication, Lever les sages. Having graduated ten years ago from Gobelins École de l'Image, Benjamin has made a name for himself in France and beyond as a photographer that blends the editorial with geographic – garnering much attention from the international press trade. On what builds the visual language of his impressively cohesive body of work, Benjamin turns to his love of exploration. “I have always been interested in photographing nature and the elements,” he explains. “It’s something you can always see running through my work.”

Within the striking Lever les sages, Benjamin carefully constructs a blissful narrative of kinship and ritual that is forged within Voodoo religion. To do so, Benjamin began a voyage to parts of West Africa (specifically Benin), to find “the cradle of Voodoo religion” where masked cults practiced their craft. “The editors of a newspaper I do a lot of work for asked me one day for material on Porto-Novo, the capital of Benin,” Benjamin explains on the book’s beginnings. “In my research I soon came across videos of masquerades with hundreds of Egun, divinities whose masks pay homage to the dead.” Intrigued by these images, Benjamin decided to venture out to Benin to learn more, where he hoped to educate himself on “the mystery surrounding the Egoun, but also for the richness of the forms and colours of the ritual robes.” With two successful trips under his belt, Benjamin built up a relationship with Daniel Aboki, “a very talented journalist based in Cotonou”. The two of them spent the majority of their time together whilst Benjamin was visiting, “and it’s partly thanks to him that this subject has become better known”.

GalleryBenjamin Schmuck: Lever les sages (Copyright © Benjamin Schmuck, 2021)

Now captured in Lever les sages, the book is published by Entorse and designed by Studio Helmo with a cover print by Yann Owens and hand bound by Hélène Pitassi at the École des Beaux Arts, Le Havre. It’s a sprawling book, celebrating and highlighting a community and practice that has been often relegated to the fringes of paganism. “Daniel got me introductions to most of the voodoo convents,” Benjamin explains. “I remember particularly a ceremony in a small village not far from Calavi, where a Voodoo priest was talking about the power of water,” Benjamin recalls on one of his trips with Daniel. “At that exact moment, I could hear the sound of rain falling on the metal roof above my head even though outside the midday sun was beating down.” It doesn’t just stop there, however. Benjamin took it a step further and collaborated with Benin-based painter Augustin Sanou, whose work was found “on a particularly beautiful Voodoo convent,” Benjamin says. “Augustin was kind enough to agree to collaborate with me, painting several works based on my photographs.” It was this discovery of Augustin’s work, and the convent paintings in general, which made Benjamin come to wholly appreciate the current of art and culture which surged through Benin’s Voodoo culture.

One of Augustin’s works is screen-printed beneath the book cover, an original piece commissioned by Benjamin that reinterprets some of the photographer’s captures. “It shows a scene where a Guelede group, one of the Yoruba masked societies, is coming down the steps of a convent,” Benjamin says. “It’s my favourite image in the book.” The painting reveals a web of religious iconography that is akin to that Benjamin and Daniel once found on the walls of the convents. “The group of deities in procession in the foreground and the lush nature of the background give it a sacred character,” the photographer adds. One image in the book that also stands out to Benjamin is one of an Egou seen from behind, outside a convent not far from Grand-Popo. “He has a turquoise costume that I had already photographed on my first visit,” Benjamin tells us. “In this image, he seems to be rising up out of the ground like a figure from beyond the grave and the closeup view gives a good idea of the complexity of the mask he’s wearing.”

It’s in images such as these that Benjamin’s “visual expression of the dichotomy of life and death” is most on display. Photos of Egou with “strong sunlight striking the sequins of the costume creates a miraculous effect with the dazzling colours, the posture and attitude of the figure arouse feelings of anxiety and fearfulness in the face of death,” Benjamin adds. It’s a fascinating insight into how Benjamin approached the matter of bringing this culture into the artistic lens it deserves, as well as how much of an admiration he built for the practice. Now, the photographer is working on a number of new titles to be published by Entorse in 2022, as well as carving out his next solo work which is sure to dazzle us once more.

GalleryBenjamin Schmuck: Lever les sages (Copyright © Benjamin Schmuck, 2021)

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Benjamin Schmuck: Lever les sages (Copyright © Benjamin Schmuck, 2021)

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About the Author

Joey Levenson

Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. They were part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.

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