Magic and myth: Enchanting photographs from Bolivia’s Altiplano

Magical realism is alive and well in the Bolivian Altiplano, where magic and myth are a part of people’s lives.

While living in La Paz, photographer Thomas Rousset and designer Raphael Verona became fascinated by Andean culture. Verona wrote to The Washington Post: “We discovered the everyday life of the inhabitants of the Altiplano regions is heavily influenced by the belief in magic. Little by little Bolivia became strange and marvelous, tinged with poetry and populated by fantastic characters.”

Waska Tatay. (Rapha‘l Verona and Thomas Rousset)
Waska Tatay. (Raphae‘l Verona and Thomas Rousset)

This fascination grew into their new book “Waska Tatay,” which they describe as a photographic narrative that draws on magical realism. The book not only focuses on Bolivian witch doctors, or yatiris, but the role that ritual magic, myth, legend and belief play in everyday life. The project includes photographs of merchants, farmers, truck drivers and cocaleros, or coca leaf growers. Verona wrote to the Post: “We focused on how peoples everyday life is tinged by magic beliefs and poetry, and also how ancient traditions stay alive though the involvement of the new generations … Traditional is not old fashioned since it is constantly renewed by the young generation.”

According to Verona, the use of the word “witch” derives from Spanish colonization and the Catholic Church. European ideas of witchcraft and sorcery were brought to the Americas in the 16th century from Spain and Portugal.

Today, the yatiri is a shaman or healer sought for help with health or emotional problems — or to read the future. In La Paz’s market, ingredients such as coca leaves — or various animal fetuses — can bought be brought to the yatiri as an offering.

In a 2008 article, the New York Times wrote “the yatiris generally bury what remains in the soil, thus feeding the earth as springtime — or what passes for springtime on these frigid high plains — approaches.” Anthropologist Andrew Orta told the Times: “It is important to remember that these sorts of offerings can in fact address very contemporary urban and rural concerns.”


“Offering to Pachamama I” (Raphae‘l Verona and Thomas Rousset)

While producing the book, Rousset and Verona took part in the rituals. Verona wrote to The Post:

My spouse’s parents always burn some coca leaves on Tuesday and Friday night in the stove to invoke their Achachilas; my father-in-law sometimes even invokes the spirit of his late father; he calls upon him to have him by his side; the caring Achachilas thus accompany him and protect him from the visit of evil spirits…Thomas and I called upon to the Achachilas and Pachamama, so that their caring presence would accompany us throughout our stay in Bolivia. It was wonderful to take part of it. The ritual consists in burning a Mesa Dulce … an offering consisting mostly of coca leaves, alcohol, nuts, threads of dyed wool, sugar figurines in various shapes … as symbols of prosperity and health, [and] a llama fetus or Sullu … All of these must be placed over a white cotton or paper cloth…we had to burn it while invoking Pachamama and Achachilas for health and prosperity for us.


(Raphael Verona and Thomas Rousset)
Waska-Tatay-series
(Raphael Verona and Thomas Rousset)

The photographs are a mixture of candid images and staged portraits. Verona said they used the two genres to create “ambiguity between fiction and reality … We wanted to focus on the meaning of the masks and what their represent.”

The book also includes narrative text and documentation complied from interviews with the Aymara and Quechua people. “It is important for us that people could understand that Waska Tatay is not only an aesthetic discourse,” Verona told The Post. “The project was intended to question people’s relationship with reality in Bolivia. We were surprised by how myths can come to life when they are shared in a collective unconscious, hence that is what we strived to illustrate in the photos.”

“Waska Tatay” is published by IDPURE éditions and available for purchase on its Web site.

Nick Kirkpatrick is a digital photo editor at The Washington Post. Follow him on Instagram or on Twitter.
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