PB: One of the ways I look at my photography is that
it allows me to go into different worlds. It gives me a reason to be there
to talk to different groups, to be with them and ask questions I probably
would never have asked had I not been there as a photographer. It focuses
my attention. Right now, I happen to be using photography to go into the
world of the world of the shaman, the spiritual healers of tribal cultures
around the world. In fact, they are the spiritual mediators for one of,
if not the world’s oldest spiritual traditions, the tradition of
animism. We call them animists.
CG: Do you have any personal experiences with your own healing? What started you on this inquiry?
PB: Well, first of all, just running into these people
as I was doing the human rights work I was doing, going back to Tibet
when I first went to Daramsahla. I had the opportunity to meet the Dalai
Lama’s oracle and watched him go into trance. I went into the little
monastery where he lives. He was 30 years old at the time in 1994. I was
with a friend who was doing an interview with him for Esquire Magazine,
so I sat in. Then he invited the two of us the next day to his session
where they put the big hat on his head and they chant until he goes into
trance. He told me he couldn’t even hold his head up. The hat weighs
90 pounds and takes two men to lift it. The robe must weigh another 70.
Once they put it on his head and tied it on his neck, his head kind of
went back and he got a little bit red. Then they started chanting and
he went into trance and he literally stood up and almost danced across
the stage and sat back down and started speaking in a different type of
voice. But he told us when he did go into trance that he didn’t
even remember too much about what he said. It completely depleted him.
He would sometimes throw up at the end of a session or faint. In this
case he didn’t throw up but he was so weak they had to carry him
from the room. The thing that interested me, and what has interested me
since in talking to these people, is that he started off as a young boy
with fainting spells and hearing voices. This is something I’ve
heard over and over again from the shaman I’ve been talking to.
CG: Here we put those people in strait jackets or drug them down. There seems to be very little room in our corporate culture.
PB: I don’t pretend to know all the complexities of something like schizophrenia, for example, but just the fact of labeling somebody as diseased sets a sort of precedent on how they’ll look at themselves and how their condition will affect them. If you look at it in a different way, sometimes the differences these people have can be channeled in a very positive direction. I’ve seen that several times in these various cultures.
CG: How has meeting these people changed you?
PB: I was asked that a lot when I was doing the Tibetan
project -- Have I become more compassionate and all that. I have change
is very, very slow and individual. The first step is awareness, so the
thing I’ve become aware of first of all, and the thing I’m
very drawn to , is the animus mythology or cosmology. The four major religions
prevalent in the world today are all very anthropocentric. Man is at the
top, more or less in a hierarchy. I grew up with Mormonism. I remember
man had dominion over the animals and was definitely the highest form.
What I liked about animism is that they spread the spiritual energy throughout
the natural world. It’s not only in man. It’s in the trees,
the rocks, the wind, all the elements of nature. That’s one thing
I admire in the people.
CG: Do the healers you met use art forms, music, dance, sculpture?
PB: When you speak of art and shamanism, one of the groups that really comes to mind are the Huichol in Mexico. I don’t know if you are familiar with Huichol art. The Huichol Indians that live in the Sierra Madres of Mexico, just north of Puerto Vallarte past a town called Tepic up in the mountains, use peyote and different shamans worldwide use different methods to go into trance. Some use psychoactive plants; some use drumming, chanting, fasting, and dancing. There are different methods of anaesthetizing the rational part of the brain so the intuitive part comes out stronger. The Huichol use peyote and they have these vivid dreams that they transform into yarn paintings. They do these brightly coloured paintings and they also do it with beads. They’re extremely beautiful and a lot of collectors collect these paintings from some of the stronger shamans down there. Definitely, their shamanism comes out as an art in their paintings. The art of going into trance with drumming in Mongolia is a very specific technique. It’s a chanting that you could call an art. It’s music that they use to go into trance. Then they come out of trance. I saw this one shaman in Mongolia have a woman with pregnancy problems do an embroidery piece to take to the mountain spirit. It was almost like a doily that she had to sew. It was very specific. The shaman had this vision while in trance and then told the woman what to make and which colour of cloth to put where. So that came out as kind of an art piece which the woman then took up to the mountain.
CG: I was thinking about the Tibetan sand paintings. Is that for a healing process?
PB: That’s a perfect example. The sand paintings are very common to the Navaho, one of many connections between them and the Tibetans. That is done to train the mind in the lesson of impermanence. It’s done in a mandala form, which is a meditative form. As you know, they do it over several day period and destroy it at the end. I know the big lesson is impermanence, that everything is constantly changing and you can’t cling to anything and no matter how beautiful your creation is, it isn’t something you can cling to. It’s something that will go away.
CG: How authentic is the word ‘shaman’ to aboriginal or Tibetan cultures? Is that a word that we made up?
PB: It came from Siberia originally. ‘Saman’ was the origin of the word shaman. I think that was the original word to describe the healers that would go into trance in Siberia. That’s where it came from, but you go into different tribes and they describe their people that do the same thing with different words. So it isn’t a universal word by any means. It’s a word that we in the west have picked up on and we use it to describe theses people that do this in different cultures around the world. I’m using the word to describe the individuals in a group or clan, no matter what the clan call them, that go into trance or states of ecstasy in order to either guide the tribe or heal an individual.
CG: Is there anything really magnificent that you’ve come across lately that you’d like to talk about?
PB: Well, first of all, I feel I’m in the very
beginning of this project. This is something I’m going to be with
for many years, probably. I’m doing this kind of overview where
I’ve looked at the ‘shamans’ in Siberia, Mongolia, the
Amazon, and in the Philippines. I have plans to go to West Africa and
up into the Arctic. The producers I’ve worked with at Discover are
actually putting together a proposal for a four hour series with PBS,
so this is something I’m going to be looking at for a long time.
CG: The loss of these traditions is really frightening. Much of it is taught orally. Nothing is written down. If the legacy is not carried on what will happen?
PB: We have this amazing technological armamentarium
that we use in our healing process, which is extremely effective. However,
we’ve begun to rely so heavily on it, the humanitarian and spiritual
aspects of the healing process have sort have been shoved aside. They’ve
atrophied to a certain extent.
CG: You began your career as a dentist, so maybe
you were moved at an early age towards a healing profession.
CG: So you went from becoming a dentist to a photographer working on human rights issues, political in a sense, and now you’ve blended that into a type of spiritual activism or a spiritual educator, collectively through the work you and many other people are doing.
PB: Yes, just sharing ideas.
Transito, age 91, is a famous human rights symbol. She is the "Rosa Parks of Ecuador."