In Your Eyes – Interview with Ksenija Soster Olmer – Benin 2022
28th April 2023
by Inger Vandyke
At Wild Images we are often asked if it is OK to turn up on our tours with smaller cameras, phones, drones and iPads. As veterans of tours with guests wielding small devices, we always reply with a resounding “Yes!” when we have guests who ask. The result is that we get a broad mix of people joining our trips with an even broader spectrum of photographic instances. We have enjoyed our travels with bloggers, photo book creators, social media stars, stock photography sellers, right up to fine art and National Geographic photographers.
Just once in a while, however, we attract a guest who truly knows the ins and outs of phone photography, including how to edit, interview, blog and post to social media, all on the fly, while she uses her phone.
During our people photography tours, phone users are in their element. Not only can you have a silent shutter (like a lot of mirrorless cameras) but the ubiquitous nature of phones often means that people don’t feel threatened by them like they would being approached with someone using a larger camera. Phones also allow for a lot of discretion and the newer models are becoming very good at dealing with extremely low light situations.
As technology progresses we are excited to see how the portfolios of our guests evolves with it. In the meantime we are thrilled to share Ksenija’s images. All of these photos were shot on an iPhone11 and edited using the native iPhone Photos app. We were enthralled when we saw these photos!
Portrait of a Sahoue elder (image by Ksenija Soster Olmer). Why Wild Images loves this – we had been at a voodoo ceremony of Koku and all of the photographers were pre-occupied with getting shots of the ceremony. We had to stand back because it was late in the afternoon and getting too close to the action meant too many long shadows which was difficult for photos. Ksenija found this a challenge with a phone as photographing with one usually means you have to get a little closer. She wandered off and met this lovely Sahoue man watching the ceremony with us. When we look at this photo it is obvious she had a natural connection with this elderly man, due to his relaxed and charismatic warmth.
Tell us a little more about your photography journey. How long have you been taking photos?
I have started taking photographs as a teenager which was still in the last century with old fashion cameras and B&W film.
Portrait of a Gambada dancer (image by Ksenija Soster Olmer). Why Wild Images loves this – It’s always quite hard to capture a fast moving animal or dancer using a phone as normally the autofocus is a bit too slow for shots like this but Ksenija really caught this shot well, considering the challenges of sunset and the particularly large crowd that was present at this event.
What are you passionate about besides photography? What do you do in your free time?
I am passionate about making a difference in the lives of children (and their parents) in all corners of the world, and in particular in Cambodian villages. I volunteer, fundraise and schlep supplies. I am also a very involved grandma with my grandchildren on two continents.
Portrait of a Zangbeto guardian with a flipped Zangbeto (image by Ksenija Soster Olmer). Why Wild Images loves this – Zangbetos are steeped in voodoo religion and they are the guardians of the night. As one of West Africa’s most famous ceremonies, a Zangbeto will seemingly twirl without the propulsion of anyone beneath it. Although this young man is sitting in a Zangbeto, he is the guardian of it. He wasn’t twirling it, but the expression on his face is one of calm pride that he plays such a huge role in the preservation of voodoo ceremonies in Benin.
What drew you to visit Benin?
Africa has a special draw and since my honeymoon on Mt. Kilimanjaro I have visited many African countries. Benin came late on my African bucket list which is a real shame, for it exceed every expectation. I was particularly drawn to ceremonies (voodoo and others) and I had no clue I could possibly whiteness, experience and even participate in so many diverse and wonderful ceremonies in such a short time.
A young fisherman near the border of Benin and Nigeria (image by Ksenija Soster Olmer). Why Wild Images loves this – A young Beninese man prepares to go fishing out on a freshwater lake system spanning the border between Benin and Nigeria in West Africa. This image is lovely as it shows him holding a net, his hand carved wooden canoes, the lake islands in the background and other fishermen in the distance. The whole scene really encapsulates life in these remote places beautifully.
What camera gear did you use on your tour?
iPhone 11 Pro
A Taneka spirital healer smoking his pipe in the compound of his family home (image by Ksenija Soster Olmer). Why Wild Images loves this – taking photos that are backlit is a challenge for anyone, especially phone photographers. Keeping the sun behind from ‘blowing out’ is one of the harder things to combat with people photography. We particularly enjoyed this image as the sun appears like a halo in the palm leaves behind this spiritual healer. It almost gives him a halo, which is appropriate as these healers are revered like holy men in Taneka society.
What were your first impressions of Benin for photography?
Well, we jumped right in the very first day of our visit and it was full immersion with dancers, sacrifices, women, men, children, colors, patterns, beautiful smiling faces. An overload but what a joyous overload. You can’t really take a bad picture there, you know.
Motion blur of a Koku dancer at a shrine of the Koku gods (image by Ksenija Soster Olmer). Why Wild Images loves this – we had been attending a ceremony of Koku and while it was finishing a few of the dancers went to pay their respects at a Koku shrine nearby. They motioned Ksenija over to join them, again because she was only carrying a mobile phone with her and it allowed her to gain an intimate perspective into the world of Koku. The dancer is slightly out of focus due to the low light, but it adds a lot of great motion to his gyrating dance in front of the Koku god.
What surprised you about your trip there?
From the organizational standpoint it was the incredibly rich program, timeliness, smoothness, fantastic leadership team: our master photographer Inger, local guides. I know a lot of work goes in behind the scenes but it seemed so effortless. No glitches, just merrily we rolled along and everything fell into place. Secondly, the participants on the trip were amazing people. Our conversations be it around photography or culture, history, life were so enriching. Thirdly, the variety of tribes and ceremonies and geography and vernacular architecture was unprecedented. Lastly, how much I could learn and improve in photography in such a short time.
Ganvie at sunset (image by Ksenija Soster Olmer). Why Wild Images loves this – in this image we really enjoyed the shooting into the sunset and the quiet glimpse of life in Ganvie, the Venice of West Africa. It is a place where the resident Tofinu people are usually quite shy with photography but more accepting of people using phones, which allowed Ksenija to photograph this beautiful scene without too much disturbance.
What were your frustrations on your trip?
None, except for the fact that we tested positive for Covid on the way out and had to quarantine for 10 days which turned out to be a great group experience where we continued to work on our photography and editing skills of the images we captured.
Twirling Zangbetos at dusk in remote Benin (image by Ksenija Soster Olmer). Why Wild Images loves this – we had been at a Zangbeto ceremony near dusk. The light was getting low and it was becoming more difficult for our guests to get shots in focus. It is during these times that slow shutter shots really come into their own. What we found clever about this photo was the guardian of the Zangbeto was in focus while the twirling zangbetos were out of focus, giving this image a great sense of movement.
Of all the places you have photographed, do you have a favourite destination you prefer to photograph?
There are fascinating people all around the world. I enjoyed very much photographing people in Omo Valley Ethiopia, but Benin comes in as close second.
Portrait of a Twins Priestess (image by Ksenija Soster Olmer). Why Wild Images loves this – across many West African countries, twins are revered in societies, but in Benin, when a twin child dies, the mother creates a small doll to represent the deceased twin and she will carry that doll with her until she dies. Special priestesses are nominated to bless twin dolls in Benin and this is one of them, holding a small collection of her ‘children’ at her breast to keep them warm and safe.
Aside from the photography, what other aspects of the tour did you enjoy?
Portrait of an Otamari lady laughing in the doorway of her Tata (image by Ksenija Soster Olmer). Why Wild Images loves this – The ancient Tata houses of the Otamari in Northern Benin often require a wide angle lens to capture them in full frame as usually there is a neighbouring building which makes it harder to stand far away enough to get the whole building in your shot. iPhone photographers have a natural wide angle in their cameras so this image is a wonderful composition of a joyous lady in the golden light of the early morning standing in front of her beautiful, hand sculpted home.
What have you learned from your tour of Benin?
I have learned to be bold and politely approach people and ask them to be photographed. Before I mostly photographed people from the sidelines. By observing Inger and her building a relationship with her subjects I am now trying to follow her suit everywhere I go. It makes my travels more fun and my photographs more diverse.
Young Otamari children dancing in the dust of northern Benin (image by Ksenija Soster Olmer). Why Wild Images loves this – these beautiful children were tasked with fetching food for a local ceremony. In combination with Ksenija’s lovely personality around children and the fact that she was using a phone, meant that she capture this spontaneous moment in a way that someone wielding a larger camera may not have.
Do you have any advice for photographers visiting Benin?
Don’t think twice, go. Don’t be afraid of moving away from the group and looking for your own unique shots be it from the back or above. Be an active participant. Make suggestions, they will be welcome. There is a sense of camaraderie not competition. Ask questions, all will be answered with grace.
Shango priests performing a mock judiciary in voodoo (image by Ksenija Soster Olmer). Why Wild Images loves this – often when you have a situation with larger groups of people it is difficult to get them all in focus due to a challenging depth of field issue. A phone photographer doesn’t experience this because, without utilising settings, phones naturally place everything in focus. This shot was taken at low level and at a wide angle so the scene with the ‘exploding skull’ really evoked the magic of this ceremony and it was timed well to see the flames off the top of the skull – a phenomena that only lasts for a couple of seconds if you see it in real life.
Are there any images that are particularly special to you?
No, I love each and every shot. It was really difficult to choose best photos for my personal photo book.
Portrait of a Guelede dancer (image by Ksenija Soster Olmer). Why Wild Images loves this – this is another situation where a dancer has connected with Ksenija taking photos on her phone, again as she was likely to feel very unthreatened in this moment. Since you only have a split second to focus on a phone, it is also a difficult situation to get shots like this completely in focus due to the slow focus system with a phone.
Would you return to Benin for photography?
Definitely. Especially since I see that every group has many variations in their program so I would see some new places/people/ceremonies. On the other hand the first time was so perfect that I would be afraid of possible disappointment.
A beautiful Fulani girl in the embrace of her mother (image by Ksenija Soster Olmer). Why Wild Images loves this – when we met some Fulani people in northern Benin, they were very shy with photography because they are heavily persecuted in their home country of Burkina Faso, neighbouring Benin in the north. Again, this is where mobile phones really came into play, particularly around children, because they didn’t feel threatened. This lovely embrace of a beautiful girl happened while the rest of the group were engaged in photographing people in portraits.
Portrait of Ksenija with her Ball’s Python at the Python Temple in Ouidah (image by tour leader Inger Vandyke)
To see more of Ksenija’s fantastic images and read insights into her world travels, you can follow her blog at: https://crazyparentstravel.com