The Nikon Ambassador Special Project Programme offers the opportunity for Nikon Ambassadors – consisting of talented and influential photographers from across Europe – to realise their dream projects.
For NOOR photographer Benedicte Kurzen, this dream project centred around Nigeria, a country she has spent lots of time in, but was especially fascinated by the fact that twin birth rate in this country is higher than any other country in the world.
To get under the skin of the complexities of twinhood in Nigeria, Benedicte teamed up with the latest NOOR recruit Sanne De Wilde, whose work focuses on genetics and the question of perception.
Equipped with the D850, Z 7 and NIKKOR lenses, the photographers forged a powerful partnership as they immersed themselves in three communities: Igbo-Ora, Abuja and Calabar – all which represent Nigeria’s evolving perception of twinhood, but in very different ways.
“Twin birth rate in Nigeria is higher than any other country in the world. As a result, in some areas shrines are built to worship the spirit of the twins and their inseparable bonds are celebrated, yet we 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.
These infanticides happen in very few and very specific communities, yet they seemed to overshadow Nigeria’s history of twins. That’s why we wanted to take a closer look at the complex mythology underpinning this, while also looking at the bigger picture of how, in most Nigerian locations, twins are worshipped.
We planned to visit Igbo-Ora, the self-proclaimed ‘twin capital of the world’ where twins are celebrated, Abuja, which we knew had a darker history of twinhood, and finally Calabar, where traditions and beliefs have transformed over time.
It wasn’t just about exploring how twins are perceived by their societies but capturing the genetic connection between them too.”
Twelve weeks, three towns
“Before we went to Nigeria, we tried to develop an infrastructure of people, places and stories, based on those elements you can plan for in advance. For this project, geography was one of the most important parts, and as we travelled across the country, we found that different layers of narrative emerged.
There were quite a few practical delays to manage. Our car broke down, which halted things for a few days, and we did struggle to fight off bites (fleas absolutely loved us!). Yet for every challenge, there was a solution, mainly provided through the kindness and accommodating nature of local people.
Our journey started in Abuja, where just a few years ago, twin persecution was still reported as happening nearby through methods like poisoning. Given that the risk of death to the mother during childbirth is more common when delivering twins, some people still see twins as a danger to the existence of the community, or as humans with ‘strange powers’.
We spent time in an orphanage which was sheltering those twins who were once threatened by their perceived role in bringing bad luck and learnt how the town’s dark history continues to overshadow the important work done by the orphanage to protect twins.”
“Contrastingly, the town of Igbo-Ora celebrates its twin culture, calling itself the ‘nation home of twins’ and hosting an annual Twin Festival. Almost every house here has at least one set of twins, who are encouraged to embrace their sameness. They’re treated, dressed and fed the same until a very late age. We wanted to communicate this symmetry with our images.
Our final stop was Calabar, a city in Southern Nigeria, which represents an area where beliefs have transformed. In the late 19th century, Mary Slessor, a missionary from Scotland, moved there and opened a clinic in a remote village. By raising twins, she successfully stopped the common practice of twin infanticide among the Ibibio people. Today, her legacy lives on, and she is remembered in both Nigeria and Europe for the impact she had.”
These places, while different, taught us 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. ”
Both photographers used the Nikon D850, with its combination of resolution, speed and light sensitivity, to capture over fifty twins across three different parts of the country. It was also the first time the photographers had used the new mirrorless Nikon Z 7.
“The D850’s amazing image quality means 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. Similarly, the lightweight and compact body of the Z 7 proved invaluable. We’re still in the early days of using this but were highly impressed by its performance in low light, the rapidity of its focus and the quality of the resulting files.”
Lens-wise, Sanne opted for the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
“I’ve used it 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.”
“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 photograph images of people in their environment, while the quality and light capabilities of the 58mm helped capture those low-light shots.
You can find a full list of the equipment Benedicte and Sanne used below.
“The aim of this project is to understand the complexities of how twins are treated in Nigeria, not simplify it. We spoke to some siblings who are extremely proud of their twinhood and the extraordinary connection they experience through it. Other twins have been born into a society where twinhood is condemned and try to shun the symmetry and sameness in fear.
By immersing ourselves in the country, its societies and its community of twins, we saw how twinhood’s painful past has become an important part of a future where twins are celebrated.
We’re extremely grateful that Nikon has given us the opportunity to shine a light on this unique subject, and that our work has also been nominated in the World Press Photo’s 2019 Photo Contest. We hope it might make some African/ Nigerian values and traditions resonate with the rest of the world.
To find out more about Benedicte and Sanne’s unique project, please visit Nikon’s website.
NOOR is a collective of ethically driven photographers, which have been taking a stand for the last ten years through empowering storytelling. To learn more about NOOR’s work, please visit their website, Instagram or Twitter pages.