Sebastian Castañeda’s series “Healers of the Soul” depicts the rituals of modern shamans in Huancabamba, in northern Peru, who lead ceremonies aimed to cure “physical ailments, of health, but…also the ailments of the soul, the pursuit of love, success, money,” Castañeda writes about the images. The ceremonies at Huancabamba attract a few intrepid tourists from far away, but are most popular with visitors from Peru and its neighbors, offering a way to connect to traditions with links to pre-Hispanic culture, and an alternative treatment for problems outside the reach of modern medicine.
Castañeda, a Lima-based photojournalist, has photographed diverse expressions of faith, from the pilgrimage to the Shrine of Rincon on Day of San Lazaro in Cuba to Fête Géde in Haiti, to the nearby procession in honor of Señor Cautivo de Ayabaca, also in northern Peru. For this project, a friend and fellow journalist connected Castañeda with a healer, Luis Zurita, who invited Castañeda to photograph the overnight ceremony while taking part in it. “At first I thought that I would be just a spectator,” writes Castañeda, but “it did not take long for me to realize that I was also part of it, when Luis asked me to pray with him and his two patients, and when [he] indicated that I should drink San Pedro,” the hallucinogenic cactus drink that opens “a bridge between the conscious and the subconscious and…connects you with the animas and spirits.” The night also involves a mixture of tobacco and alcohol ingested first through the left nostril to disperse negative energy, then through the right, to invite the positive, along with prayer and an altar prepared with wooden swords, limes and flowers. In the morning, the ceremony continues with a trip to Laguna Negra, part of Las Huaringas, a complex of lagoons that are popular with healers. There, participants are immersed in the water in a cleansing part of the ritual. “After bathing in the lagoon you feel more vitality and strength, you feel satisfied with the result,” writes Castañeda.
The dark, intimate images suggest the strong effect that participating in the ceremony had on Castañeda. “I am not a religious person,” he writes, “I live the faith of others, but this time I was part of the ritual,” which, although “long, tense [and] exhausting,” revealed to him the “unquestionable healing power of the healers of Las Huaringas.”