Burning Hot in Benin

I recently travelled to Benin in West Africa to work on a feature documentary film. While there I discovered that Benin is the birthplace of voodoo. The slave trade of centuries ago deeply connected the country to Haiti, which explains how voodoo extended to the Caribbean and Americas.


Large voodoo statue carved into a tree trunk in a small roadside village.

Details from a painting from the French colonial period that was hanging in the breakfast area of my little hotel in Cotonou, Benin.

Details from a painting from the French colonial period that was hanging in the breakfast area of my little hotel in Cotonou, Benin.


This sense of spirit and worship lingered as I worked in the heat on a film about the drug trade and the flow of illicit money from Latin America to Benin and onwards to other parts of the world nefariously. As the director of photography on the feature length documentary, I was intently and intensely shooting video. In this relatively new climate of media multitasking, I was also at work producing one of my first Instagram stories with intention. I find the plethora of ways to use social media exciting but also overwhelming, causing me to hesitate in fully engaging in this new method of “storytelling.” There is a constant pressure and an increasingly addictive need to capture the highlights of our travels and daily life. This sense of urgency to share is altering our perceptions of our own experiences and identities.


Stacks of rice are loaded onto a ship at the port of Cotonou.

Overpass at night in Cotonou.

On the beach in Cotonou.



An aspect of these constantly new forms of storytelling that I find disturbing is in knowing that the tech companies are dictating the pace and profit from our free content. Though it is exciting to experiment and communicate in this perverse media environment, I do feel concern for the involuntary need to adapt, preventing us from mastering any one form. We begin to produce content at an almost maniacal pace for someone else’s profits and technological advancement.

When I pause to put aside the narcissistic aspect of social media, I consider not only how we use these mediums, but also why. How does this voluntary production impact us, our own personal experiences? In what way does it add context to the grand mass of content? What exactly are we contributing, and how quickly does it become irrelevant? Perhaps this is a transition to a new enlightenment or form of being. This becomes harder to believe when only our highlights are captured, replacing any possibility of revealing meaning or depth through our channels; thus creating a pattern of false representation and only a minimal sense of understanding the experiences of another. That being said, I remain fascinated in observing and participating in our global wiki of visual content. One of the tropes included is the “on the road” sequence, which I explored while in Benin. This trip became an opportunity to exercise creating on the fly with abandon and instinctual observation.


The director during an incognito interview in a car with a subject on the outskirts of Cotonou.

In the field.



Instagram Stories allows us to connect with our followers and tell stories in new and innovative ways so we can integrate image, movement, sound, text, and even artwork to bring more personal stories to light. The smartphone is small but it sure is powerful. At what point though does the content become overloaded, and when do we let go of our devices and engage, ruminate, daydream? Can a distinction be made between living and capturing? As a professional photographer who is addicted to this technology, I acknowledge that this is the fine line we all straddle as consumers and participants.

During this two-week trip to the hot country of Benin, the use of technology almost completely compromised the success of the documentary film. Towards the end, we were briefly detained by the military for trying to film the exterior of a bank. Though we lost 3 SD cards and a day’s work, I was reminded of a few things that we take for granted. I realized a strong undercurrent of bitterness from the locals towards the French director I was working with. The general attitude in response to our protests of innocence expressed a sense of long-awaited control. This work yet again becomes humbling in a most frustrating way, acting as a reminder of the remaining post-colonial resentments still running deep in the world.


On the beach in Benin.

On the beach in Benin.

On the beach in Benin.

Man bending on the sidewalk outside the port of Cotonou.

Serving lunch at a nice restaurant in Cotonou.

Roadside selling along the road on the way to the capital, Cotonou.

Roadside selling along the road on the way to the capital, Cotonou.

A night watchman in a better neighborhood of Cotonou.



Instagram Stories is still relatively new, and it is intriguing to see the diverse usage. Some folks engage in silly, fun, informative and sometimes powerful narrative stories, or little haikus and atmospheric sequences such as my colleague John Stanmeyer. His Out Of Eden Walk project gracefully married long form journalism with real time updates, inviting an unlimited amount of viewers to follow his epic journey. Some use Stories to cover fast breaking news, allowing us to feel like witnesses to history as it is made. This exposure can simultaneously create a sense of intimate connection with the world and excruciating distance as we remain absorbed in our little screens that fit in the palms of our hands. Media organizations like National Geographic and Time, or big photo agencies like Getty are finding new ways to transform the presentation of photojournalism in compelling ways. All of these approaches can be combined into the singular platform of Instagram stories; the fact that they expire from our feed adds to the sense of immediacy and potential spontaneity.

We must always ask ourselves why we create, why we tell stories, and what is our purpose/ultimate goal? What are we trying to prove, and how do we use a platform such as Instagram Stories to its highest potential with the best of our abilities? We are exposed to plenty of self-promotion and indulgence, yet we can still find poetic and thoughtful work. The possibilities have me asking a lot of questions regarding our responsibilities and intentions. This post allows me to archive and try and make sense of what I’ve created on this trip. My motivations for creating work are permanence and authorship. I intend to reach people and impact them with something they’ll remember, to make them pause and think, or to simply make them laugh or shed a tear. Perhaps I won’t definitively figure out the most affective way to use these platforms, but I intend to continue questioning and experimenting.


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