Ethnography and Photography
By Pierre Verger
The following photographs were taken during the course of
different trips throughout two continents, Dahomey and Brazil,
and to an extent during a pilgrimage from one source to another.
They lay the foundation for a common theme since they all
refer to African religions – religions transported during
the period of the slave trade by the blacks themselves, from
the African homeland to the new continent.
In 1946, when I returned to Brazil for a brief stay, the
magical quality of the "Boa Terra," the name given
to Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia, turned my
intended stay of a few weeks into one that would last many
All throughout Brazil one finds a generous and tolerant spirit.
In Bahia, however, the race relations seem to produce the
greatest human warmth. All religious expressions enjoy a far-reaching
tolerance here, so that the cult surrounding specific African
deities can be maintained with an impressive authenticity
and give rise to beautiful public ceremonies.
While I was attending such a gathering, I felt the urge to
repeat a much too short journey taken to West Africa in 1936.
This wish was wonderfully fulfilled thanks to a grant from
the Institut Francais d'Afrique Noire in Dakar: I was commissioned
to research the origins of these cultures.
In the subject at hand, we give special emphasis to the revelations
of the Orishas *) and Voduns, from Nigeria and Dahomey. To transcribe
in a few words the nature of these deities and the ceremonies
dedicated to them is not an easy task. Essentially this concerns
natural forces, which, over the course of time, were brought
closer to mankind through a complex system of alliances, fixed,
tamed, and finally transformed into protective gods. As deities,
they became the Orishas *) and Voduns. And whether rooted in
Africa or transplanted in distant lands, during cultural ceremonies
these are the gods that reveal themselves to their followers
in states of trance.
Just as with the continuous and living, mystic connection
to godly ancestors found on the black continent, African ceremonies
in Brazil also live from this connection to the gods, the
dead and the living. The "Candomblé *)" have
a connection to the Kingdom of Heaven so intense that it can
almost be touched, and no believer hesitates to summon his
deities, to implore their protection and enjoy their goodwill.
During the course of my studies, my working tool –
photography – proved to be an invaluable aid. It let
me establish an indispensable understanding between myself
and the people the subject of my studies. In Africa, when
I showed my photographs of certain Brazilian ceremonies, the
images immediately created an atmosphere of interest and sympathy
for the good of my investigations. Thoughts made visible through
photographic documents promoted a more concise and generally-understood
language. Far better than any abstract interpretations might
have done, photography made it possible for me to show the
Africans that their Brazilian brothers – whose abduction
during the period of slavery they knew of, without it ever
being told to them directly – still paid homage to the
beliefs of their ancestors. The people of Dahomey and Nigeria
quickly recognized the symbolic cult-objects, and how certain
ceremonies were performed, as being strongly related to their
own. Many of them even thought the photographs were taken
in a neighboring village, and not until I pointed out specific
details, for example the presence of light-skinned mestizos
and the totally different clothing, did they first realize
they were mistaken.
(Published in: Camera, 1956)
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