Fusing interviews, eyewitness testimonies, case files, illustrations, anthropological papers, medical reports, cultural history as well as his own photographs, Christo Geoghegan’s Banished of Balsapuerto is the result of a five year examination of crimes related to the practices of witchcraft. It is work that gives a voice to the unheard, and shines a light on events that have previously received attempts at being covered up. “My aim is to document stories and cases from all over the world to see what we can learn from each of their differences and similarities,” Christo tells It’s Nice That of the subject matter of his practice. “I’m hoping that by doing so it might help with prevent further similar human rights violations from occurring.”
Last year Christo’s work was included amongst many other amazing global voices in the United Nations’ first ever Experts Workshop dedicated to human rights violations attributed to witchcraft beliefs and practices. More recently a selection of his Banished of Balsapuerto images were part of an exhibition at the United Nations in Geneva on the subject.Banished of Balsapuerto is just the first chapter of this particular body of his work called Witch Hunt. We spoke with Christo about the meticulous processes, time and sensitivity involved in collecting imagery and information and dove deeper into his first series, focused on a remote community in the Peruvian Amazon, where the healers had been accused of witchcraft and this accusation had in many instances led to their death.
It’s Nice That: How did you first hear about the community which you documented in this series?
Christo Geoghegan: My first series, Banished of Balsapuerto, focuses on a community in the remote Peruvian Amazon who saw a series of violent and systematic murders take place within its traditional healer community between 2010 and 2011. Some reports claim the death toll sits anywhere between 14 and 30. Peruvian and international press stated that all healers had been accused of witchcraft and had paid for that with their lives. I came across an article written about the murders when they were first happening in 2011, but when I came back to it a few years later, I couldn’t find any reputable information on whether there had been a meaningful resolution to this murder spree and as such I felt that I wanted to look and see if this bloodshed had had a lasting impact in their wake as well as how they had came to pass in the first place.
INT: Was it essential to be incredibly sensitive in spending time with these individuals?
CG: Absolutely. The accusations spread through rumour and suspicion, so I operated very cautiously when speaking about such topics with people; it’s not something you discuss out in the open. I never want my work to ‘excoticise’ indigenous communities, as that’s just another form of colonialism in itself. What I want is to understand the impact that outside factors, such as rapid globalisation, manipulation of indigenous beliefs, politics and institutionalised racism and other things have on these communities and how often any violence attributed to the indigenous within them, such as these killings, is often framed in a way that accuses them of being ‘barbaric and uncivilised’, an assumption I believe to be fundamentally wrong. I instead want to bring attention to it often being these outside influences that lead indigenous communities to effectively cannibalise themselves.
Another key approach in my work on witchcraft crimes is that I don’t seek out to photograph the violence itself. The ‘torture porn/it bleeds it leads’ dynamic of reporting witchcraft violence has actually, I believe, been more damaging to any public understanding of the phenomena than it has helped. The crimes are often so gruesome that the depiction of this violence is so severe it actually forces the viewer to disengage with the story when we need to be doing that exact opposite as documentary photographers. People know that this violence exists, but they often don’t know why it does. This being said, I don’t try and shy away from any depiction of violence as its integral to the story, but a key part of Banished is the use of archive material that I’ve recovered, either in the form of amateur footage of the acts, brash local news coverage or indeed the use of illustrations (by the incredible Louise Zergaeng Pomeroy). Shocking imagery on witchcraft killings is already out there so I don’t feel the need to add to it with my own photographs.
At the end of the day, photographers leave the situations they photograph and you have to be able to leave knowing, as much as you can, that you aren’t making anyone worse off. You have to get your ethics in check and suppress that insatiable need to ‘get the story’ that drives many and look at the very real human outcomes of your actions. It can be life and death in some situations.
INT: Did you strike up any relationships during your time there? Did you really get to know these people?
CG: Over a period of a year, I took two separate five-week trips to Balsapuerto and the surrounding area, and always worked closely with the local community. I like my work to be as collaborative as possible with the community I’m working within. I mean how else if your work going to be authentic if you don’t? But also, as I mentioned before, with the very nature of this particular story, I at times made the conscious decision to withhold some information or keep my relationships with some people at arm’s length for fear that any association with me could potentially be dangerous for them – rumours spread fast and as 2011 showed their effect can be deadly. The story in Balsapuerto is a tangled and complicated beast and where possible I felt more comfortable not tangling people in that web further unless they were fully aware of it. This may be me being overly cautious, but it’s the only way I could continue working with any semblance of ease. You have to triple think everything in a place like Balsapuerto.
INT: What was the relationship with the people you took pictures of like? How did you build a sense of trust?
CG: The way in which I work, shooting on large format and medium format film cameras on bulky tripods, slows down the whole process of taking photos and this approach is very much deliberate choice of mine. Knowing that I can only work in certain light conditions, certain times of day, etc, means that I spend most of my time getting to know the people I photograph. Photography is just one component of my work though, with in depth research, interviewing people and collecting archival material taking up a far greater amount of time than the photography. So taking photos is more often than not the absolute last step in my process and by then, after really spending time getting to know the person, I’d like to think I’ve already established this sense of trust.