Welcome to Benin, former kingdom of Dahomey and cradle of voodoo. In this territory found to the north of the Gulf of Guinea, wedged between Togo to the west and Nigeria to the east, the boundary between the living and the dead is more tenuous than the non-believer might assume.

So, what exactly is voodoo? A religion, just like Christianity and Islam – both of which are highly developed in the region. Its practitioners worship a pantheon of gods and minor deities who inhabit natural elements such as a stone, a waterfall… or a tree. It took time, patience and the authorisation of the country’s spiritual leaders for Gaël Turine, a sensitive social reporter, to gain access to the sacred forests of Mitogbodji, Fâ-Zoun and Houinyèhouévé: closed quarters, places of worship off-limits to the uninitiated. Here, the deity is aware of your presence, but remains unseen: it allows mortals to live and prosper, but lives hidden away. And it is thanks to traditional knowledge, taboos and totems, tales and legends handed down the generations, that these forests have remained protected from human activity. However, these now represent only 0.2% of the territory and are threatened by demographic pressure, the expansion of farmland and the rise of evangelical churches. Between 2005 and 2015, Benin’s total forest area shrank by more than 20%, with an ongoing deforestation rate of more than 2% per year according to the World Bank.

Gaël Turine set out to understand and document this complex situation, focusing on the survival of these rituals intricately tied to the existence of a preserved natural environment. Should it disappear, should these sources of life become contaminated, a whole system of beliefs and a complete culture will be lost forever.



Gaël Turine is the 2023 winner of the Yves Rocher Foundation Photo Award, in partnership with Visa pour l’Image. He was awarded a prize of €8,000 for this work, on show in its entirety for the first time, here at La Gacilly.

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Our thanks go to writer Laurent Gaudé (winner of the 2004 Goncourt Prize for his novel Le Soleil des Scorta), who generously contributed a previously unpublished text to accompany Gaël Turine’s work.
© Gaël Turine • Exhibition The spirits of the forest