Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou, son of influential photographer Joseph Moise, threw himself (and his travelling studio) headlong into the otherworldly traditions of the Egungun collective in Porto Novo, the Republic of Benin, and came out with some captivating, raw stills which seek to expose its curious attire and singular practices. We pinned down the visionary artist, whose exhibition opens at the Jack Bell Gallery in London tomorrow.

What professional skills did you absorb from your father, who trained you?

I think I adopted quite a traditional method of working. Like my father, I prefer to shoot with medium format in an outdoor studio. I’m always thinking about the essential components of portrait photography: light, subject, framing. But I’ve since developed my own style, which I like to think speaks to a contemporary audience.

Was it intimidating starting your career in his shadow?

I’m lucky, really – my father was world-renowned and, as a youngster, it got me off to a good start. I used to sit up at night with him while he printed and developed film. To me, the whole process was fascinating.

Photographers in Benin had developed their skills whilst fighting in World War Two, many setting up their own studios when they returned to west Africa. Artists of this period were working outside of urban centres; travelling to far-flung villages to shoot portraits of Juju men, Vodou Priests, tribal chiefs and the elderly. What’s interesting about photography in Benin at that time is the role it played not just in life but in the afterlife. It was a commonly-held belief that a person’s soul lives on, trapped within a photograph.

I feel that my portraits are an extension of that – they capture both the individual personalities and quirks of the Egungun while marking out their power and elusiveness as liminal visitors from the world of the dead.

How did you first learn about the tribe?

Egungun masqueraders are part of my local culture. They are found in the Republic of Benin and in the Yoruba kingdoms of south west Nigeria. For me, the Egungun play a fundamental role in upholding the ethical values of the community.

With the rise of Pentecostal churches in the 1990s across western Africa, a new challenge to Egungun masquerade emerged, as these churches sought to demonise indigenous religions (and their pantheons of deities) and, as such, vehemently reject them. Egungun responded in establishing a counter-narrative of localised Yoruba memories, personalised histories and ritual public performances. My series seeks to explore these dynamic tensions.

My previous projects have also been focused on portrait photography. I exhibited a body of work entitled ‘From Dahomey to Benin’ at Jack Bell last year. This work was particularly focused on locally-printed, Dutch-imported textiles worn by the inhabitants of Porto Novo – Benin’s capital.

How long did you stay with the Egungun, as a means of understanding their day-to-day lives? Were they cautious of you at first, or accommodating?

When looking into a certain culture or community, I generally stay for the duration of a festival or an event, which can last as long as a week. It is always difficult to make yourself an invisible part of a ceremony, but as I said, it is a part of my culture and I feel close to the Egungun performers.

Was it problematic transporting the outdoor studio to and around the village?

Once I’m set up, I tend to stay put for a whole day at a time.

Any projects in the pipeline?

Yes – I’ll be working on a new series later this year, focusing on masks.

Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou’s exhibition runs until December 17th at the Jack Bell Gallery, 13 Mason’s Yard, London SW1Y 6BU
Words: Jack Mills