Interview: Bénédicte Kurzen and Sanne De Wilde on photographing twins

Benedicte Kurzen & Sanne De Wilde
Double exposure brings twin boys together in one shot. Igbo-Ora, Nigeria. (Image credit: & Sanne De Wilde)

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 look at the 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’; Abuja, which we knew had a darker history of twinhood; and finally Calabar, where beliefs had changed over time. 

Nikon Europe Ambassadors Benedicte Kurzen (left) and Sanne De Wilde (right) (Image credit: & Sanne De Wilde)

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 all across the country, we found that different layers of narrative emerged.

There were a few practical delays to manage. Our car broke down, and we did struggle to fight off insect bites. Yet for every challenge, there was a solution, mainly provided through the kindness and accommodating nature of local people.

A girl staying in the Vine Heritage Home holds up a mirror, reflecting the image of her twin sister. Gwagwalada, Nigeria. (Image credit: Benedicte Kurzen & Sanne De Wilde)

Our journey started in Abuja, where just a few years ago, twin persecution was still reported as happening nearby with methods like poisoning. Given the risk of death to the mother during childbirth is more common when delivering twins, some people still see twins as a danger.

We also spent time in an orphanage that was sheltering those twins who were once threatened by their perceived role in bringing bad luck. We then went on to learn how the town’s dark history continues to overshadow the important work done by the orphanage to protect twins. 

10-year-old Kehinde Deborah and Taiwo Celestine dressed in white following a church service. Igbo-Ora, Nigeria. (Image credit: Benedicte Kurzen & Sanne De Wilde)

Contrastingly, the town of Igbo-Ora celebrates its twin culture, calling itself the ‘twin capital of the world’ 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.

Our final stop was Calabar, a city in Southern Nigeria, which represents an area where beliefs have transformed over time. 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 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.

Two sisters captured through a window as they walk together. Igbo-Ora, Nigeria. (Image credit: Benedicte Kurzen & Sanne De Wilde)

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.

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. 

Kehinde Adebayo and Taiwo Ayodele, 46 years old, pose for a photograph in Igbo-Ora. (Image credit: Benedicte Kurzen & Sanne De Wilde)

We’re grateful that Nikon has given us the chance to shine a light on this 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.  

The Nikon Ambassador Special Project Programme offers the opportunity for Nikon Ambassadors to realize their dream projects, and where you can find out more about Bénédicte and Sanne’s Twinhood project.

Noor is a collective of ethically driven photographers. 

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