“I love the strange split between the old and the new world, as well as between magic and the internet,” says photographer Lucia Sekerkova about her four-year project capturing the vrăjitoare, or witches, of Romania’s Wallachian Roma community. Working with ethnologist Ivana Šusterová, the pair have documented how ancient traditions have transitioned into the modern world, through savvy social media promotion and live-streamed rituals.
The Wallachian Roma people were formerly nomadic groups who moved across Europe until it was made illegal, explains Lucia. Once banned by the communist regime, a vrăjitoare’s work is defined by fortune-telling and spell-casting and has seen a distinct upsurge in Romania in recent years. Working with Ivana, an expert in the everyday life and culture of Wallachian Roma people, was a huge boon to the project, especially given her language skills. “This group has many traditional norms, specific forms of behaviour and its own community rules and laws. I think that people should know about them and respect them before they just demand something from them,” says Lucia.
Self-determination and self-expression was a big part of the project, with Lucia asking each of her subjects to suggest how they’d like to pose. For many it was important to pose with computers or while taking selfies to show how their work could be available to clients all over the world. “I was totally fascinated by their promotional skills, especially on social networks like Facebook,” says Lucia. “They are definitely better than me!”
Witch Maria Campina, the self-proclaimed queen of white magic, wanted to pose with a golden crown, a symbol of prestige that wards off evil. Witch Danusia posed in a praying position – a nod to her use of white magic and her belief in God. “She doesn’t use spells, only prayers,” says Lucia. “I used my flash and the television behind her to create a kind of digital halo effect inspired by religious iconography.” A young witch, called Selena, chose to pose as the Virgin Mary, holding her tarot cards. “A young girl must be a virgin until her marriage, otherwise she has no value in Wallachian Roma community,” explains Lucia. “If she has magical powers, which have been passed down from mother to daughter, it can be an advantage because probably she will able to bring extra money to the family.”
The resulting project is an excellent combination of ethnographic study and creative representation. “I decided to use a strong flash, even in moments which should be full of a mysticism, closely scrutinising the fortune teller’s methods,” says Lucia. “The pictures should provide an artistically evocative, complex view of the topic, reproducing specific reality but teetering between assumed mysticism and what is designed for clients or for promotion on the social network. It often produces an unexpected and bizarre picture for observers."