My photographs explore the power and mystery of ancient indigenous healing practices among the Maya people of Guatemala who live along the shores of Lake Atitlan. In our data driven world, there is increasing interest in indigenous knowledge as a source of enlightenment for those who can apprehend patterns in nature and use their own bodies as sources of healing. The photographs speak to the close relationship of these communities with the natural and spiritual worlds - lives bound up with the lake and its winds and the surrounding volcanoes.
I accompanied these healers to small windowless spaces where ancient rituals are practiced over dirt floors. I listened to the voices of those who are believed to have connections with the supernatural and derive their knowledge from dreams as they practice a craft that’s outside the realm of western medicine. These rituals survive despite the genocide of the Maya people perpetrated until 1996 by government and paramilitary forces. The resurgence of Maya identity celebrates their endurance in the aftermath of trauma and violence, part of the larger process of healing.
I have been photographing and researching Maya communities on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala for many years. My work explores the vision and practice of Maya traditions in the context of a culture that has undergone a 36 year civil war in which more than 200,000 civilians, mostly indigenous people, were killed and 440 villages were wiped off the map. The physical destruction of the people also involved attacking their cultural practices and traditions such as destroying sacred lands and desecrating Maya rituals. Against this background I photographed and recorded Maya ritual practices and traditions as a symbol of the endurance and resistance of the community. My work focused on curanderas and shamans (healers and bone setters), considered to be a sacred profession.
When I photographed the work of one of these curanderas, I was introduced to Marta Mendoza Damian who had suffered a grave injury in a work related accident. I photographed the curandera's healing process over the course of a month and saw firsthand how the curandera and Marta Mendoza Damian were part of a sacred process that binds practitioner and patient. It represents the powerful message that religion empowers medicine and vice versa.
At my young daughter's going away party in San Pedro at the end of one summer, where many spontaneous speeches were made, one mother, Estela Peneleu, commented to my daughter. “Your mother will create something that we will value in years to come, the photographs of our people and our ways. We remember and your mother is part of that remembering." I hope I have fulfilled that promise.
These photos are part of a forthcoming book of photographs and writng to be published by Nirala Press in the fall of 2014.
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