Throughout the Caribbean and up into the United States, slaves shipped over from Africa brought more than just their bodies and music. With the various tribal groups came a variety of stories and belief systems as well. Most of us have heard of Voodoo and all the misconceptions that accompany it, but other religions assumed some characteristics of the dominant Catholic faith in Latin and South America in order to blend in.
In Cuba one of those religions practiced among the African population was Santeria, or Regla de Ocho – the Kingdom of Ocho. Ocho was the primary deity of the religion, which chose the name Santeria – way of the Saints – in order to disguise their traditional practices of worship. By pretending they were worshiping individual Catholic saints and not the Gods who lived in Ocho's realm they kept the Catholic Church happy.
Of course if the Church had ever shown up at a Santeria ceremony they might have a different reaction; heck, if they'd even understood any of the doctrine being taught they would have closed it down pretty quick. They would have been appalled by the fact that Santeria didn't believe in the existence of evil. All men are capable of performing good actions, some just haven't being able to get it together but don't need to be frightened by threats of hell into doing it.
Jorge Luis Alvarez Pupo is an Afro-Cuban photographer who grew up with this religion as the spiritual base of his community. So when he set out to create a record of the ceremonies and the way a belief system can affect a person's way of seeing the world around him or her, he had the advantage over the casual observer of already being in tune with the significance of events.
The images he has recorded and presented in his book Trance, which was released in 2003 by Perceval Press, capture people in moments of either high emotion or on the edge of entering the trance-like state that enables them to perform remarkable feats with fire and metal.
At first glance some of the photos are quite terrifying — faces contorted in what appears to be pain as they brandish flaming rods, swallow fire, hold a sword point to their throat, or exhale huge gouts of flames. But upon looking closer, the body language is at odds with the initial interpretation; there is none of the tension that one normally associates with pain or fear knotting the muscles of the participants.
What I find remarkable about the pictures of these events is that they were taken at all. They look like highly intense and personal moments that I would not necessarily want recorded for others to see publicly in a book. It's not that there is anything wrong with what they are doing but there is a level of spiritual intimacy that's caught by the camera that makes one feel almost voyeuristic. Then again it's that emotionally charged nature of the photographs that makes them so powerful.
Alvarez Pupo starts off the series of photos dealing directly with ceremony with pictures of their beginnings — an individual lighting a candle in front of an alter, a woman slipping into a trance state, and a man caught in mid-step while dancing and drumming. While not much preparation, they do give us sufficient warning that something unusual is about to ensue.
It's not until the midpoint of the book that explanatory notes are offered. Written by Mabel Llevat Soy, they give us an explanation of what we have just experienced and what is to come. The second half of the book features photographs which in some ways are even more potent than those in the first.
While the earlier work has some shock element to it, and its power is genuine enough, the second half offers an interpretation of how a believer of Santeria sees the world. These works are therefore the creation solely of the artist, not pictures of actual events. In my mind that makes them more powerful.
According to the notes in the book, the creation story for Santeria has men and women being pulled from the shadows and crawling out from the earth to be first brought to life. So there is life in the shadows of their world, lurking just outside of our vision.
Alvarez Pupo has made phenomenal use of light and shadow to give us a taste of what that must feel like in the mind's eye of a believer. One image that especially stands out for me is just a hand pushing up through grains of sand, but somehow he has made it so that the sand is slowly falling away from the hand and fingers slowly exposing them to the light.
Trance is a unique view of a world few of us have ever experienced. Normally the only time we see Afro-Caribbean religions are the twisted exploitive verions used in movies and sensationalistic novels. Jorge Luis Alvarez Pupo is able to make the real thing far less scary and twice as fascinating, meaning he's a photographer of some talent through his ability to overcome those rather large preconceptions.
As with all titles available through Perceval Press, Trance is half price until June 17, 2007.