HOTSHOE's Gregory Barker recently caught up with Thomas Rousset and his collaborator Raphaël Verona to talk about their series on the Witch Doctors of the Altiplano: Waska Tatay.
GB: Gregory Barker
T: Thomas Rousset
R: Raphaël Verona
GB: How did the two of you end up in Altiplano making photographs of witches?
R-T: The use of the word “witch” derives from the Spanish colonisation, and from the Catholic Church in which men communicate with the divine through intermediates: With God, through a Priest and the Church, and with the Devil through witches and witchcraft. However the Altiplanic belief system is much more complex, not conforming to such a black/white dichotomy. For them the mortal world is porous, the men approach deities, sometimes they are benevolent, sometimes evil, depending on the homage’s that they have been given. Anyone can address Pachamama, achachilas, Tio de la mine (or Supay) etc. but this requires following certain rituals.
We went to Bolivia and more precisely in the occidentals regions of the Altiplano to achieve a photographic work staging these believes and representing the rituals.
GB: How did you make contact with the witches?
R–T: They are merchants and producers of “magical” ritual objects from la Zona Centro and Max Paredez to La Paz . We live in the same area as they do and so we see each other every day. Because we are considered “unholy” it makes it difficult to communicate with them. However, most of our models are friends or relatives whom practices the rituals mentioned above.
R: The woman that you are probably mentioning and that you see on several images is my mother in law. Dona Martha.
GB: You say you took part in the witch DR's rituals. What did these involve? Were you cured of any ailments?
R: We took part in different rituals of “retributions” or “offering to Pachamama” held by my parents in law Doña Martha and Don Jesús.
R–T: We could talk about the one that we documented. For the Aymara, it’s through smoke that the mortal voice can access the spirits (achachilas) and to deities such as Pachamama: Mother earths which is not located in a specific pantheon but which is all around us.
We had prepared a Mesa dulce, made of colored sugar miniatures of different objects, each of them having different meaning related to prosperity and health, and the dry fetus of a dead lama. Presented to the Pachamama as wishes for ourselves (health and prosperity throughout our trip to Bolivia), we have left them burning.
GB: How did the witches respond to being photographer?
R–T: Most of the Bolivians are happy that their cultures are being shown to the world at large through photography. The ones we call ‘witches’ in the area of Santa Cruz – llampu where we lived in La Paz, ie. the merchants of rituals and magic objects have nothing against being photographed but ask for money in exchange …the image right.
GB: The photographs have a certain theatrical quality to them, which cause me not to trust the legitimacy of the photographs in a way that I might have otherwise. What was it that you were looking to create when you made these photographs, a document or a something closer to a fairy tale?
R-T: All our images are staged, some of them clearly demonstrating a theatrical dimension, in the lighting, the staging of characters, etc. Others suggest they were taken on the spot; as snapshot. We wanted, through the mixture of these two “languages”, to create an ambiguity between fiction and reality, specific to a literary genre: “ The magic realism”, which by the way; was born on the South American continent.
GB: The project goes between portraits and environmental photos are these sights of spiritual significance?
R: Unlike Catholics, the Aymara, have no particular places of spiritual significance. The nature is their cathedral. It is easier to speak to Achachilas talking to them from the mountaintops, which corresponds to Hanan Pacha: “the upper world”. Pachamama lives in everything: vegetable and mineral.
It’s in the dark recesses, cavities and subterranean areas, such as famous mines of Oruro and Potosí, that we pay tribute to Tio (or Supay). The Amara, ancient peoples who preceded the Inca settlement, maintain a strong spiritual connection to the Gate of the Sun Tiwanaku. We didn’t photograph it.
GB: The people’s houses contain pop culture references, Hello Kitty, Stewie Griffin; the girl in the tree is on a mobile phone. Did you find that Witchcraft was something that people were involved with alongside their modern lives?
R-T: Of course, this is exactly what we wanted to show. The relationship with the sacred is very present in the daily life of the inhabitants of altiplanic regions. The worldview of the peoples of these regions is rich.
A: As we mentioned earlier, there is no Manichean good / bad and it really affects their way of thinking. There is a striking example: Tuesdays and Thursday evenings, my in-laws always burn coca leaves in the hearth, in order to invoke their Achachilas. According to there believes, those are the nights when the mortal world is particularly porous. Sometimes my father in law, invokes his own deceased father to remain to his sight, the benevolent Achachilas, like his father, accompany them through these special evenings and protect them from the other spirits who would want to harm them.
GB: The costumes are incredible; do the people make them themselves?
R-T: Yes, the craft has always been very active and has highly developed to keep pace with the growth of the "native” traditions in Bolivia in the twentieth and early twenty-first century.
There are several important craft centres: one in La Paz, which provides costumes for La Paz, Carnival, the Entrada Universitaria, Gran Poder, and Oruro, a city that lives throughout the year in the preparations for its Carnival, now recognized by UNESCO, as a cultural heritage.
GB: The series includes several portraits of people from a younger generation, are the Bolivian youth continuing their families traditions?
R-T: Yes indeed. We should mention that previous generations have experienced harsh dictatorships that oppressed the native and mestizo peoples of Bolivia, a majority in number in the overall population. In recent decades there has been an unprecedented growth practices and ancestral worship. This involves rituals mentioned above including the Andean world and dances.
The new generations are the main proponents of the culture: Bolivia unlike our countries of old Europe has a very high percentage of young people! In clubs, bars and discos, international "hits" come together with traditional rhythms. Traditional is not old fashioned since it is constantly renewed.
GB: In an age of modern medicine, why do the people that you photographed still turn to which craft instead of medical attention? Poverty? Tradition?
R -T: June 21, 2013 began the year 5521 of the Aymara calendar. Bolivia Altiplano’s natural medicine is known for millions of years – Which I also had the opportunity to test during my several long stays. This knowledge of medicinal plants continues to grow through high-level research conducted in the country. It is a form of undeniable modernity! In this regard, many plants from Bolivia are used in the West by the pharmaceutical industry.
Western medicine based on antibiotics and homeopathy is also practiced, as well as surgery. These practices are becoming more accessible thanks to the growth of living standards of the people and the development of international health programs, especially through exchanges with Cuba, known as one of the best medicines in the world.
R: Finally the essence of the practice of some very high level Bolivian doctors, like my friend Jaime who also appears in some images, is the synthesis of Western medicine, surgery and knowledge related to natural medicines, without recourse to "witchcraft”!
See more of the series HERE
— Gregory Barker