Twinhood is a symbolic figure in many different places around the world, but nowhere more so than Nigeria. We wanted to understand twins, not just in terms of how they are perceived by their societies but by capturing their genetic connection via powerful portraits and compositions.
Bénédicte Kurzen and Sanne De Wilde explore what it’s like being a twin in contemporary Nigeria, visiting Igbo-Ora, the self-proclaimed ‘twin capital of the world’ where twins are celebrated, the town of Abuja, which represents a darker history of twinhood and Calabar, where traditions and beliefs have transformed.
Q: What drew you to Nigeria’s story of twins?
Bénédicte: Twin birth rate in Nigeria is higher than any other country in the world. In response to this, in some areas, shrines are built to worship the spirit of the twins and the inseparable bonds celebrated, yet I had also heard about an orphanage in Abuja sheltering twins who were threatened to be killed by the community for their perceived role in bringing bad luck. Other children whose mother died during delivery are also meant to be buried with the body of their deceased mother. These infanticides happen in very few and very specific communities an hour away from the city of Abuja.
Bénédicte: I was keen to understand the complexities of twinhood in Nigeria, not simplify it. I spoke about it with Sanne who was the newest member of our agency (NOOR). Her work focuses on genetics and the question of perception. She decided to join me in Nigeria, and everything fell into place. The more we moved into the project, the more we realised it made sense to extend the duplicity of our subject to ourselves: two visions, two types of photography merging.
Sanne: We wanted to visit Igbo-Ora, the self-proclaimed ‘twin capital of the world’ where twins are celebrated, and sameness encouraged, as well as a town close to the city Abuja, which we knew had a darker history of twinhood and where, close by, reports of twins still being punished existed. It wasn’t just about exploring how twins are perceived by their societies but capturing the genetic connection between them too.
Q: How much planning did you have to do in advance?
Sanne: It’s about striking a balance - so planning ahead and anticipating as much as possible, but also leaving yourself the flexibility to respond to what you find on the ground. You can plan months in advance, but things always change when you arrive at a location.
We had planned for the first part of our trip to work in the orphanage in Abuja. We then left ourselves more open to elements of surprise for the second stage. As much as photography is about planning the perfect shot, it is also about responding to the environment and capturing something you never anticipated.
Bénédicte: You try to develop an infrastructure of people, places and stories, based on the elements you set in advance. And for this project, geography is one of the most important elements. As we travelled across Nigeria, the various layers of narrative emerged. Research plays a prominent role here. We used a collection of articles written by academics on the subject to help us understand the deeper meaning. Knowledge helped us identify and capture key components. For example, we understood that one way twins were killed in few communities was by being poisoned. Consequently, a few of the images symbolically represent these seemingly innocent receptacles, which we knew had a darker connotation.
Q: What challenges and surprises did you face during your trip?
There were quite a few practical delays we had to manage. Nigeria, although incredibly intuitive, isn’t the easiest place to travel around. Plus, our car broke down, which halted things for a few days. Despite the heat, lack of food and being covered with bites (fleas absolutely love Bene!), we found that for every challenge, there was a solution, mainly provided through the kindness and accommodating nature of local people. There was a huge enthusiasm when we spoke to people about their culture and their view of twinhood - they were grateful that we made the effort to understand and immerse ourselves in it.
Bénédicte: For many of those we photographed, there was a true sense of surprise and excitement. The question of us both being twins came up all the time. Even when we were just walking in the streets of Lagos, “Ibeji!” (twins in Yoruba language) was often shouted at us.
One challenge we didn’t know how would play out was working together on such a complex project. This was the first time either of us had worked collaboratively, so it was an experiment in many ways. Yet we instantly found an understanding, complimented by our individual ways of working. This partnership helped us to develop a connection with the people we worked with too.
Bénédicte: Finally, it was a real surprise to both of us how comfortable our project goal came about. The idea of twinhood was a richer and more universal subject than expected. Every time we mention the project to someone, it encourages stories, references and personal experiences. It happened so often, which was confirmation that we were working on something that fascinates people beyond Nigeria, and beyond that physical resemblance. That‘s the true power of a myth: it triggers imagination and has the ability to open a hidden world.
Q: What was your favourite moment of the trip?
There are so many to choose from, but I think both Bene and I agree it was a moment at the end of our trip in Igbo-Ora, the self-proclaimed twin capital of the world, where almost every family has a twin. The family we stayed with in the hotel took us to Aso Awaye - a beautiful suspended lake, one of the only ones in the world. It’s important that wherever we settle for a project, we create a positive environment. The fact they wanted to share this natural wonder with us was really moving.
Bénédicte: It was so special for us to go there with them because it became a sign of integration. A beautiful moment, which wasn’t about photography, but about our connection to the people we work with.
More recently we went to Calabar. I was surprised to see a statue of Mary Slessor - a Scottish missionary who successfully fought to stop the practice of twin killing in the area in the late 19th century - erected in the middle of the main roundabout, holding twins in her arms. This made me think - when are we going to see statues of great Africans in Europe and celebrate them for their contribution to a better world?
Q: What was your favourite shot from your trip?
Sanne: The first one that springs to mind was a moment where we photographed two girls in Igbo Ora who had a unique skin condition. They were reluctant to be part of the project at first but once they had agreed, they let their guard down and really started to enjoy it. The resulting photo is very special.
Bénédicte: Yes, and because they’re identical, we were able to create one image where they are standing behind each other, but their faces seem to be one profile. We were also extremely excited by the portrait we took of two young twin boys in Calabar, surrounded by a blue light. They were so kind, so patient. It was one of our last shots and it felt so magical. The atmosphere, colour and their body language all came together to show their unique bond and mysterious aura.
Q: What kit did you bring with you and how did it help you?
We’re both shooting with the D850, which we couldn’t be without. The image quality is so excellent that no matter what shot you go for, whether wide angle or portrait, you know the result will be super sharp yet sensitive to light, nuance and expression.
Lens-wise, I opted for the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, which I’ve used ever since I started shooting with Nikon. For me, it strikes the perfect balance between flexibility, fast aperture and an edge to edge sharpness equivalent to fixed focal length lenses. I love it.
Bénédicte: I tend to switch around my lenses a little more - with my favourite two being the AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G ED and the AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G. As a photojournalist, I find that the quality of prime lenses is perfect when you want to capture the surroundings without sacrificing subject intimacy. The 35mm’s wide-angle perspective was invaluable on this shoot when capturing images of people in their environment, with the quality and light capabilities of the 58mm helping capture those darker shots. We experimented with using multiple flashes and a transmitter, which was something new for us.
Bénédicte: I also put the new Z 7 with the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S zoom lens to the test, which was a wonderful tool thanks to its light body. I am still in the early days of using this but was highly impressed by its performance in low light, the rapidity of its focus and the quality of the resulting files.
Q: What did you learn about twinhood in Nigeria, and how do you see its future?
Sanne: I learnt that twinhood is about unity in double - about celebrating the biological connection between siblings and, ironically, considering sameness as something that sets you apart from others.
Q: What message do you hope to deliver with your Nikon Special Project series?
Genetics is one of the last frontiers and there is an increasing number of twins now born in the West. To be able to share such a unique view of twinhood will hopefully make some African/Nigerian values and traditions resonate with the world, instead of singling them out.
Sanne: For me, the aim of this project is to demonstrate the complexity, not only of cultures, but of the relationship between two people - whether twins, parent and child, or even two photographers in our case. We hope the images we took demonstrate this duality.
It also promotes the amazing opportunities that can come about by working with others. By collaborating with someone who comes from a different way of seeing and interpreting things, you adjust your way of working, in order to be inspired by new possibilities.