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Matthieu Zellweger: Speaking Words of Wisdom

They tend to be the worst briefs: they sound simple. “Bring back pictures about asthma, if possible including patients in the middle of a crisis, or in an emergency room.”


Indeed, this will not be an easy shooting. Having once suffered from a terrible bout of asthma, I vividly remember how unpleasant and painful it is. I also remember there was no way I would have welcomed anyone near me, certainly not with a camera in their hands.

As I ruminate, my puzzlement in the car travelling the busy road between Cotonou and Porto-Novo, Benin, I realize that I am accompanied by the most appropriate person to open any door standing between the shooting and me: a wise elder.

He was a lung doctor. Now half-retired, he tends to his cattle and works as a community dignitary in his native village, a township of several hundred inhabitants. He was appointed to this function by an oracle and is responsible for the observance of traditional rites during village ceremonies.

His role encompasses the management of disagreements in the community, burials, and other events that punctuate the life of the village. I am sure he is also keenly aware of the stigma associated with asthma, of how children in particular must hide their disease if they want to find a spouse easily when they grow up.

More than anything, he is extraordinarily gifted to interact with other people, mixing caring compassion, a warm-hearted smile, and an infectious sense of humor. The cocktail is a true delight to spend a day with.

Mid-morning. A man walks into the consultation room of Porto-Novo’s Lung Hospital after a bout of asthma during the previous night. Staff members take care of him. They are well-educated and have a very appropriate demeanor with a patient who is obviously in pain.

He accepts that I photograph the entire process. He says one ought to speak about the disease. He knows.

He knows all too well that the stigma associated with asthma is rooted in ignorance. And he, an old man, wants to contribute to eliminating that stigma. He understands that if the stigma goes, his children and grandchildren may have an easier life than he did, when he had to hide to take his medicines. Yet, another wise elder.

An hour later, the patient feels better and walks out, smiling. He entrusts me to his god. Says he will keep me. And against all odds, it sounds just about right to my agnostic ears.

Photos: Matthieu Zellweger

Every time it's a bit funny. Or rather, surprising. The minute I step out of my own country, Switzerland, the spiritual references catch up with me.

In the Orient, I accept ghosts and spirits. And in Africa, I accept God. It takes a few days. But in the end, the references to God accompany me. It starts with the blessings I receive, the farewell words full of godly references. They help. They carry me. Maybe they even keep me safe. And after a few days, I use those same references when I bid someone farewell or, as they say, ask for permission to take the road.

Yes, may God keep you all, friends that I met in Benin, may God keep you safe. I look forward to seeing you all again. And I do believe that a higher power will keep you out of harm's way.

Words of wisdom seeping through me…


– Matthieu Zellweger, Photographer
Matthieu's photographs of Benin asthma patients earned him an honorable mention in PROOF's 2013 Emerging Photojourn