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Phil Borges

  National Post
Chasing the spirit of the shaman
Photographer Phil Borges has trekked from the Amazon jungle to Siberia to introduce the world to indigenous people and their cultures

By Cori Howard
August 5, 2000

American photographer Phil Borges sits in his home studio overlooking Seattle's Lake Washington, in a room without walls (he's renovating), the fresh air streaming in from the lake, and describes his recent trip to the Ecuadorean Amazon.

A one-time San Francisco orthodontist, Borges has become internationally renowned for his portraits of indigenous people and their cultures. His trip to Ecuador was the final stop to take photographs for his latest exhibit, Animists: The Spirit of Place, which opens today in Vancouver at the Diane Farris Gallery. Other portraits were taken over the past year in Siberia, Mongolia, the Philippines and Peru.

This show marks a departure for Borges as he moves beyond focusing on human rights -- his two previous shows, which travelled across North America and Europe, were fundraisers for Tibetan human-rights groups and Amnesty International respectively. The photos in this exhibit are more spiritual, he says, more emotional. His focus this time: shamans.

"There are only a few traditional cultures remaining where people spiritually communicate with their environment," he says. "These photographs depict some of the people for whom the environment still holds a sacred enchantment."

Arriving in Ecuador, destined for the Huarani tribe, a five-day hike into the jungle, Borges travelled with a documentary film crew from Vancouver, and carried his own equipment, lights included, in the shadow of an erupting volcano.

"It was hot, muggy and slippery, and every time you grabbed on to something, it had thorns," Borges recalls. But watching the jaguar spirit enter a 60-year-old shaman from one of the fiercest tribes in the basin was worth the discomfort.

Borges' portraits of this man and his grandson, Moi, on a monkey hunt in the jungle are astonishingly intimate, almost tactile, and humbling.

By using his studio lights outdoors, and shooting so the background is often out of focus, Borges gives his subjects a startling immediacy. Then he selectively paints a sepia tone on to each portrait, so his subjects take on an almost angelic other-worldliness.

Not that they need it. The faces of the 90-year-old shaman women in Siberia, for example, are so marked with time's rough passage and yet so full of joy that they need nothing more to transport the viewer into their world.

"I'm not painting a picture of the romantic, noble savage," Borges says. "These people have it hard. They don't have technology, or the choices we have. But on a spiritual level, they are very healthy."

No longer the rational, scientific Western thinker, Borges has become a kind of believer. "I grew up a Mormon so my background is very different," says Borges. "I love the idea of being spiritually bonded to the environment."

When he was 45, he had a total life change; he sold his dentistry practice in San Francisco, moved to Seattle, became a father and settled into a new life as a photographer. It was a successful transition: In a very competitive and difficult field, his prints now sell for about US$1,200, and he constantly travels. "I used to work so that I could do what I loved," he says. "Now I just do what I love."

Diane Farris, the Vancouver gallery owner who has shown both Borges's previous exhibits, says she is drawn to his work by the pain his portraits evoke. Nor does he romanticize his subjects, she says, which would be an easy temptation given the hardness of their lives.

"It's not just a pretty picture," she says. "You're requested to know who they are."

The text that accompanies each photo tells a story, written by Borges. "It tells you something about how the people approach life," Farris says. "These are not just photographs, there's a message."

Animists: The Spirit of Place runs Aug. 5 to Aug. 26). Borges will present a slide show at the Diane Farris Gallery on Aug. 16. For more information, visit www.dianefarrisgallery.com.


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Animists: The Spirit of Place

Moi 35

In 1990, Moi coordinated the first Huaorani National Assembly to unite his people against oil companies that want to drill in Huaorani territory. He has even travelled to New York and Washington, DC to appeal his cause.

Ulzusuren 7

Ulzusuren, 7, lives with her 70-year-old grandmother Namid, a well-known shaman in Northern Mongolia. Ulzusuren helps her grandmother, who sees about a half-dozen people that come for shamanic healing each day.

Namid 70

Namid, far right, started her shamanic work when she was 14. 'If you want to live a long life, continue to help others,' she counsels.