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Photos by Pierre Verger and Mario Cravo Neto


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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 years.

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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