There’s death. There are the things that lead to it. Then there are the things that compel us to analyze it. In the photo series “It’s Alright Ma, it’s only Witchcraft” Jesus Leon explores the concept, and the results, of Witchcraft.
Jesus has immersed himself in a world that explores the human condition as experienced via the hearts, minds and souls of a certain religious subset of, in this case, Mexico. In this syncretic world, there is no correlation to morbid curiosity. To the people of this community these rituals are simply a matter of necessity, even obligation.
In this series, however, no performance was captured. Not that we would expect such a private event to be available for documentation, but there was an option. Additionally, Jesus’ photos are devoid of stereotypical witchcraft symbolism, avoiding cliché and the glorification of the occult.
What Jesus has presented to us is drenched in metaphor…
Citizen LA: You chose not to document the event itself, the ceremony, or the spectacle.
Jesus: My photos contain the leftovers of Santeria, of Witchcraft. I live in a neighborhood where one can see throatless chickens and rituals of witchcraft along the streets, including animals used in sacrifices. My photos capture the end of the party, the after-party… I believe.
Citizen LA: The after-party?? I didn’t know there was a “party” associated with witchcraft. Hmm.
Jesus: It is a combination. Somewhere between post-party-witchcraft and… trash.
Citizen LA: I have to think about THAT one.
Jesus: Yes. Hahaha.
Citizen LA: So how did you come up with the idea? Did it come from one photograph? Or was it well thought out before?
Jesus: For 10 years I have been taking these photographs. It’s about the night. The photos are only taken at night. At dawn. During the parties. Everything that happens at the parties. And after the parties. The leftovers. The Human Remains. Everything. All that I find.
Citizen LA: I notice a certain look in the eyes of the subjects, even in the animals. You know when you look a certain people and their eyes are, like, dead? It’s empathetic and ominous; almost, as if, a warning.
Jesus: Yes, absolutely, the show is designed with the eyes in mind. I chose the photos for the “gaze”. Even the animals.
Citizen LA: What’s interesting is that two things are happening. First, with THAT stare, those captured in the photo are sharing something with YOU as the photographer. And second, the photos are sharing something with US the audience. It’s like a gift. A dark creepy gift.
Jesus: I love that idea.
Citizen LA: Strangely enough the morbidity is the first thing that you notice but then you realize it’s not morbid at all. It’s almost wonderful, special, a very unique opportunity to experience something.
Jesus: To me it’s about the calm. Not relaxed or tired, but a calmness. Especially in the picture of the funeral home, it’s a very special print.
Citizen LA: Do you think that the “calm” comes from acceptance?
Jesus: Accepting the inevitable.
Citizen LA: First there’s denial, then we go through all these emotions, and finally we accept it; our situation.
Citizen LA: These photos are taken very quickly.
Jesus: Like snap-shots, yeah.
Citizen LA: Bresson was a master of the moment. And you’re capturing a moment. A moment that may test the patience of some… their ability to absorb what’s beyond the graphic imagery.
Jesus: I hope they see more than just the moment. One of the photographers that have influenced me most is Weegee, the disasters, the things that only happen at night. That kind of thing. That’s what interests me.
Citizen LA: I get very emotionally attached to what I shoot. It’s my life. What you are shooting, I can only assume that it is part of your life. Not that you WANT this to be your life… it IS your life.
Jesus: You have to be completely immersed, in your lifestyle, with your people, within your atmosphere. I do not see it any other way either.
Citizen LA: How do you distance yourself from what you’re shooting? Or do you distance yourself? Or have you already surpassed the tragedy?
Jesus: Not all the time. I think it’s about tragedy, and the beauty comes after that. Very much after that. It is too intense to see anything other than what is happening at the moment I am taking the photo. After, I re-evaluate it or perhaps see something more interesting or beautiful. Yes it affects me very much.
Citizen LA: The reason that I ask is because there is one form of documentation where, as a journalist, you go in, you capture and you leave.
Jesus: Yes, I can’t do that.
Citizen LA: Then there are the situations where you become part of the environment. And, in turn, affect the environment actively. I find it very admirable, very brave. Not that you go out at night. Not that brevity. But the brave where you are allowing this to affect your life.
Jesus: I tried to separate myself a little, but it’s almost impossible to be separated from the subject and the atmosphere.
The images that comprise the “It’s Alright Ma, it’s only Witchcraft” series emanate from deeply embedded cultural beliefs found in the Santería religion. At its worst we imagine a priest waving a chicken over his head; at best we hope that all forms of life are respected during the ritualistic ceremonies.
According to Jesus Leon, the nightly expeditions and subsequent documentation provide evidence that the common-practice ceremony may officially end, but in the dark alleys and byways of certain Mexican barrios the after-party is just getting started.
Can I get a “Thank you Jesus”?