Crossing the Water: A Photographic Path to the Afro-Cuban Spirit World
By Claire Garoutte and Anneke Wambaugh
Duke University Press, 258 pp.

In the visually rich yet secretive world of Afro-Cuban religion, a photograph can conceal as much as it reveals. Everyday objects, estranged from their original use, seem charged with an eerie intentionality: children’s dolls dressed in elaborate crowns and robes, cooking pots erupting with horseshoes and metal spikes, shells suspended in water-filled glasses. Reading the surfaces of such photographs for meaning can be perplexing. For believers, say Claire Garoutte and Anneke Wambaugh, their emotional and aesthetic impact often stems from “an appreciation of what remains completely hidden.”

Their new photographic ethnography of Santeria, Palo Monte and Espiritismo makes a deeper visual understanding of such images possible for the uninitiated. The book’s charismatic protagonist is Santiago Castañeda Vera, a spiritual practitioner who “works” the spirits of the dead and whose sacred oricha is Yemaya, the mother of the waters. The authors, American photographers Anneke Wambaugh and Claire Garoutte, describe him as both “a religious performer” and “a parental figure to the bone,” who leads a community of “godchildren” in rituals of Cuba’s Congo- and Yoruba-derived traditions, with admixtures from Haitian Vodou and European Spiritism.

Castañeda’s way of combining the traditions is idiosyncratic and based on his personal gifts: Born into a religious family in rural Santiago, he started communicating with the dead at age 8, leading to his initiation in Palo Monte. At age 22, he became a santero as well. A devotee of Yemaya, maternal Santería goddess of fluid elements, Castañeda takes on an androgynous character in some of the photos, and in others dominates the flock as belligerent male spirit Sarabanda. Alongside spiritual practice, he has worked various day jobs throughout his life, and since retiring at age 60, lives solely from his religious activities.

In 2001, Garoutte and Wambaugh were looking for religious subjects in Santiago de Cuba to photograph, and they accidentally came across Castañeda while waiting in line at a restaurant. When the restaurant ran out of food, the doorman invited them to dine instead with his padrino, or spiritual godfather. The meal of goat stew, rice and beans became the entrée to a special relationship with Castañeda, leading not only to the book but also to the authors’ initiation as children of his religious house.

In an interesting move of joint ownership, Garoutte and Wambaugh share credit for all photos and text, without identifying who was behind the camera or pen at any particular moment. An afterword entitled “¿Y La Otra? (And The Other One?): The Nature of Our Collaboration” is not about their relationship to Santiago’s house as non-Cuban outsiders (as the title might suggest), but about their own creative duo so seamless that Castañeda never sees one of them alone without asking about the other. Their unusual species of teamwork allowed them to capture multiple points of view on the same event, giving the resulting photo essays a dimensional dynamism that one photographer in a crowded room of worshippers, animals and ritual objects would have been unlikely to capture.

Just as Palo and Santería have different modus operandi and emotional overtonesthe more aggressive Palo uses prendas, cauldrons containing enslaved spirits of the dead, to intervene in human affairs, whereas Santería’s pantheon of divinities represents an autonomous spirit world that mirrors the complex range of human personalityso too does the use of color versus black-and-white photography affect the mood and message of the pictures.

Santería makes great symbolic use of color, for instance, as seen in the collares, or bead necklaces, every santero wears representing different orichas. Beautiful series of color photos accentuate this, such as the construction of a temporary shrine for Yemaya’s birthday. We see a lively, carefully arranged world of cakes, fruits, draped cloth, and dolls and other objects representative of the goddess. Even seemingly mundane things in Castañeda’s universe, such as a favorite item of clothing, may be chosen to represent the colors of a particular saint.

It should be noted that the book documents from an insider’s perspective, and with accompanying textual explanations, some of the most secretive and often misunderstood aspects of Afro-Caribbean religion. For example, the book shows in highly graphic detail a matanza, the November ritual cycle when a large number of birds and goats are sacrificed. These photos are almost entirely in black and white, as are many (but not all) of possession, in which Castañeda and his followers exhibit signs that they are inhabited either by a Santería god or by a dead African or Haitian ancestor. Possessed individuals can be merry or violent, disoriented or confrontational, and their faces reflect a massive shift, their eyes sometimes vacant, sometimes authoritative. In this state, the divine messenger may give out advice to others in their midst, something Castañeda does as Pa Francisco, one of the Congo spirits he commands.

The use of black and white evokes classic ethnographies, such as Maya Deren’s Divine Horseman, conveying timelessness, and a level of discretion, perhaps, particularly when it comes to scenes where blood and entrails are actively flowing. (Prendas layered with dried blood and collares that have been bathed after the fact are shown in color, but the matanza itself is in black and white.) But it is also emotionally distancing, and reductive of the rich, color-sensitive aesthetics so clearly important to the practitioners themselves. Black and white photos step out of time, in synch perhaps with tapping into a powerful and timeless spirit world, but the text also highlights how the struggles of everyday life in Cuba impact the religion, and vice versa. Wambaugh and Garoutte inspire confidence in their tale by being forthcoming about the specific roles they played, be it driving Castañeda around in their rental car to shop for hard-to-find ritual items, donating fabrics and food items they could afford as relatively rich foreigners, and which personal rites of cleansing and initiation they underwent.

As to whether this level of access by those interested in documenting the religion is unusual, Amma McKen, an oricha priestess of 28 years residing in Brooklyn, says, “It has been done, but it’s not done frequently. I think [the book] will be really well received by practitioners if nothing else.” McKen, like Castañeda, is a devotee of Yemaya.

More a visual ethnography than a coffee table book, Crossing the Water‘s complicated images are striking, but also pregnant with clues to a contextual universe that is impossible to read without such intimate firsthand knowledge. The authors provide this in their essay, alongside songs, quotes and spiritual handwritings of Castañeda, a useful glossary and extensive scholarly footnotes. The sum reveals Castañeda’s precisely ordered physical surroundings to be a highly individualized cosmological map, where every object (living or inanimate) becomes an animate representation of the spirit world. In this world, spirit cauldrons, like human heads, contain unseen elements that can act for evil or for good. Crossing the Water documents Castañeda’s high-voltage connection to the African spirit world, as it is lived in 21st-century Cuba.