Phil Borges


Common Ground

Interview with Phil Borges
by Sonya Weir

Issue 109, August 2000
pp. 4, 18-20

CG: How do you see your photography working with healing?

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.

The tradition of the shaman is to go into a trance state to transcend the individual consciousness and go to another dimension where the shaman travels to get information to help the tribe or the clan and heal individuals. That’s how I’m using photography right now, not only to record these people in terms of their portraits, but as a key to get to interact with them.

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.

The other person I bumped into was in my last show, Sukulen, the woman from Kenya who predicted my arrival in the Samburu territory months before I got there. In fact she predicted my arrival before I even planned the trip to go there. She also did it in a very specific way. It wasn’t just a white man coming to visit, it was a guy with dark curly hair and a woman who’s tall and blonde, light hair as they said, which she was. She described the type of camera I was using, putting the cloth over my head, things that were pretty specific. I just started running into people like this and seeing the shaman going into trance over in Mongolia in a couple of instances. So, I decided I would focus in on it. It was just something that intrigued me.
I started the formal part of the project in Siberia where I went over to visit five of the remaining shamanesses, women shamans, in the area of Siberia where the Ulchi and the Nanai tribes are. These are all women in their late 80’s and early 90’s and they’re the last of the shamans in these two groups.

I just happened to meet a woman here in Seattle, who is herself trying to learn the tradition. She is one of the only young people. She’s 52 years old and is the only person over there that’s even trying to carry on the tradition. It’s very interesting to go over there and see literally the end of the shamanistic tradition in these tribes, something that had survived for centuries. In fact, a shaman woman named Lindsa who’s in the show, died three weeks after we were there, leaving no other shaman in her area at all.

Again, many of them, like Sukulen, the woman who predicted our arrival, thought they were sick, had fainting spells, and heard voices. Some of them see visions. In her case, a grandmother took her aside and nurtured her through that and told her she had a gift. She didn’t label her as diseased or that she had a problem. They consider it a gift if people have this ability to go into other states and contact other dimensions beyond space and time.

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.

First, they are close to the earth in a very physical way, because they have to know all the flora and fauna just to survive. They know it so well. Take a walk with anybody in the Amazon that has grown up there and you’d be amazed at how much they do know of the physical world. Not only do they have that intimate connection physically, but they have this spiritual connection where they believe a lot of their powers and energies come from different animals and different elements of nature like mountains and forests. A lot of the shaman use forest spirits and animal spirits. The spirit of the jaguar is very big down in the Amazon.

So, I consider it a very healthy system. It connects us with what we are, with the nature world in a way that we have not connected in this culture. We here are fairly separate from it. It’s this awareness that has changed me. I can say, Yeah, I don’t have that connection. I don’t have the physical knowledge of the land around me here in Seattle that they do.”

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.

So far the most magnificent thing that has struck me was during the trip I took into the Amazon, into the Huaorani territory and this is in the film that Discovery is showing now, meeting the shaman Mengatohue, a sixty year old man who’s considered one of the strongest shaman in the Huaorani tribe. It’s a very small tribe.
One night he went into trance and the spirit of the jaguar entered his body. I really had the sense of somebody shifting into another form. Watching him with my physical eyes and the camera I don’t think really told the story. There was just a feeling that I got while I was in his presence that moved me in a way that I haven’t really been able to articulate. That was pretty magnificent.

I watched a woman by the name of Namid, (these people are in the show by the way) who’s seventy years old, in Mongolia, staying up all night with this woman who was having trouble with her pregnancy, drumming and spinning and falling on the floor and getting up and chanting and crying and chanting. All of this emotion and energy was coming out of this seventy year old woman all night long for a patient.

I thought that was magnificent from several different points of view. One, it was the ultimate in patient/doctor relationship. Here’s a woman that spent all night with her patient. The young woman was also participating in the ceremony herself, so this healing process was collaboration.

I thought that had so many factors that reflected on our healing system. Here, in America, at least, if we get five to ten minutes with our care provider when we go to an HMO we’re doing well. To see this woman spending all night like that, I mean there’s studies now that if you just have the caregiver just double their time from ten to twenty minutes, the effectiveness of their treatment goes up by a factor of 40 percent.

The amount of caring this woman Namid showed: I paid her to stay in her little tent for the three days I spent with her and she looked at the money kind of funny. Over the course of the three days, seeing five or six patients a day, she gave that money away to her patients. That’s quite a difference from our health care system! Namid supports herself by raising her sheep and goats and she does this healing as a service, as something that she has been anointed to do. The fact that she did this so selflessly, I felt was magnificent.

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.
That’s all these people had to work with so they haven’t atrophied in their hands, so hopefully there will be a blending. You do see it in the medical world where people are starting to think about the power of prayer, for instance, in healing. It’s becoming a little bit more mainstream than it has before. But it is interesting to see the healing process in a place where there is no technology.

CG: You began your career as a dentist, so maybe you were moved at an early age towards a healing profession.

PB: Well, that’s how I got into dentistry really. I started taking basic physiology and health related classes because I have always been interested in what keeps a person healthy and what are the factors of health. As I’ve gone to these tribal people over the years, I’ve come to define health as connectedness: the amount of connection they have with each other in their extended families and the way they work and raise their kids communally; the amount of connection they have with their ancestors, which has always fascinated me. How connected they are to the people that have come before them and how much attention they still pay to those people and consider them to be still with them and guiding them. Then, lastly, what I’ve been talking about with animism, the amount of connection to the natural world where it’s a spiritual as well as physical connection. I think the people that are the most connected in that way tend to be a lot healthier than the people that feel separate and alienated and isolated and alone. I consider that mindset and lifestyle a very health one.

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.

Phil Borges


  • Field Notes, 2001

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