CNN Photos

Shamanism looms high in the Andes

Spanish photographer Juan Manuel Castro Prieto divides his life into two chapters: before and after Peru.

He has visited the South American country 15 times since his first trip in 1990 to resurrect the work of Martin Chambi, a Peruvian photojournalist of native descent who documented indigenous life in the 1930s.

It was a dream assignment for Castro Prieto, an admirer of Chambi’s work whose fascination with Peru began in childhood with Tintin’s “Temple of the Sun” adventures.

Castro Prieto was commissioned to make photographic copies of Chambi’s work for his first retrospective in Spain and fell in love with Andean culture.

“It was perhaps the most enriching human and photographic experience,” Castro Prieto said. “Evidently it has changed me.”

He returned multiple times over the next decade to follow in Chambi’s footsteps, documenting the humble beauty of the landscape, its relatively unspoiled culture and the poverty often accompanying this condition.

His most recent project focuses on shamanic practices in the population’s daily life, which center on the belief that nature – also called Pachamama, or Mother Earth – lives in every man.

“Shamanism in the Andes still has great importance today,” he said. “It is, like all Andean culture, very rooted in the Earth, in the mountains, in nature: It forms part of the Andean spirit; and the people, above all in the country, believe in it.”

His photographs show shamans – mediators between the spirits of nature and mankind – receiving people in rooms filled with crucifixes and portraits of saints alongside animal skins and skulls and other symbols of esotericism.

They read the future in coca leaves or alcohol, cure all the ills of the body and mind and communicate with the living or dead spirits.

Most people visit shamans for matters of the heart and mind, seeking not only medicine but advice, converting these healers and diviners into a specie of family counselor or therapist.

Regardless of whether a shaman specializes in falling into a trance to commune with the dead, reading coca leaves for a glimpse of the future or offering guidance on seeking a spouse’s forgiveness, they enjoy a level of prestige in a community that places great value on balance and harmony.

Castro Prieto took most of the images in communities near Cuzco, the heart of the once mighty Inca Empire because of its significance as a center of energy.

Mountains, or apus, as they’re called in Quechua, the language of the Incas, are considered demi-gods, sacred places from which shamans drew their power.

For example, the town of Huasao was home to 30 shamans, each with a specific skill, because of its location at a point of confluence between various apus, or mountains of energy.

Some were clearly more credible than others, Castro Prieto acknowledged, and yet they all seemed to coexist peacefully.

The photographer was also surprised by the ease with which shamans and townspeople seemed to acknowledge spirits and demons as part of everyday life.

He recalls a family in the town of Chachapoyas that spoke of a demon named “Antimonio” or antimony that entered the bodies of people through their noses and devoured the souls of anyone who entered a space inhabited by the demon.

Such beliefs were not restricted to the peasant class, he said. A mayor leading him on a tour of a city in 1997 refused to enter a tomb because he was scared of Antimonio.

“They weren’t talking to me about a legend or a myth,” he said, “but of concrete cases of a reality that was there.”

- Emanuella Grinberg, CNN