F-Stop Magazine: Tell us a bit about your background as a photographer.
Lucia Sekerková: Currently, I am studying a Master’s degree program in Multimedia and Design – Advertising Photography at Tomas Bata University in Zlín in the Czech Republic. I prefer documentary photography more than work in the advertising field but school is fine because I can do it how I like.
I focus on storytelling about marginalized communities and I’m also fascinated by syncretism of the Christian religion with other religious movements. I received a Canon Junior Award in the category Everyday life at Czech Press Photo Prague with my photography series called “Donum Vitae”. It is about a Slovak Catholic family that has eleven members and they all live as farmers.
For the last four years, I have been capturing an interesting phenomenon – women from Wallachian Roma groups who live in Bucharest and its surroundings and who offer fortune-telling and magic rituals as a gainful activity. I cooperated on this project “Vrajitoare” with an ethnologist Ivana Šusterová who focuses on everyday life and culture of Wallachian Roma people in Slovakia. We published the book Ženy predávajúce nádej (“Women Selling Hope”) one month ago.
F-Stop: The current issue of F-Stop Magazine features images from this project, can you tell us more about it? What led to this work?
LS: Vrăjitoare – witches, fortune-tellers, healers… these words relate to one of the most common stereotypes about Roma, according to which Roma women deal with fortune telling and magic. This historical context suggests long-term practicing of fortune-telling by nomadic Roma groups wandering through European territories. Part of the population seeks help from them, to the other part they are simply liars, taking money from people. The activities of these women are veiled in secret and raise many questions which are interesting for the general public. In Romania, there has been a large increase in the number of women offering fortune telling and magic after the revolutionary year 1989. You can find vrăjitoare both in the countryside and in Bucharest, where they no longer walk in the streets, seeking appropriate hands for fortune telling. They are sought by clients on the basis of advertising in the media or through social networks and are visited in their luxury-like houses.
Our book Women Selling Hope combines knowledge obtained by ethnographic research and recorded photographic material. The pictures aim to provide an artistically evocative, complex view of the topic. They reproduce a specific reality, teetering between assumed mysticism and what is designed for clients or designed for their self promotion on social media, which often produces an unexpected and bizarre picture for observers. The aim of the ethnographic research, which overlaps and combines with the photographic material, was to map in as much detail as possible about the current manifestations of fortune-telling and magic activities the Roma women offered to their clients. The research focused primarily on the present situation from the perspective of several generations carrying out this activity.
Ivana and I met and talked to several vrăjitoare, and visited 24 households where we met other women. We conducted more complex interviews with 30 women and we returned to some of them several times. These women present their “gift” as something with which they must have been born, as a skill that God has given to them. We were also disclosed valuable information when some vrăjitoare, especially older ones, told us openly that not all women that presented themselves as vrăjitoare had that “gift”; not all of them learned it from older generations within their respective families, and their activities were primarily motivated by the profit-mongering mindset. Magic or something which can be carried out only by persons who have that “gift” can help, but also do harm.
The book also offers material on deochiat and blesteme – the power of the thought and uttered word to hurt, do harm and the possibility of subsequent help and solution by vrăjitoare. This is achieved by means of various rituals, uttered formulas and objects which become magic. In the book, vrăjitoare are seen in the context of a Roma family, but also of the Romanian society, or as women presenting themselves as persons believing in God. Spells and prayers, Tarot cards and icons of saints, holy water as an ingredient of healing waters: all this is combined in the work of vrăjitoare.
During our research, we also sought to reflect the inter-generational differences in the work of vrăjitoare. We do not know how vrăjitoare were seen in the past. For example if we look at the content of their work, they can see a change in their work compared to the past only in the possibility of using modern technology and in better availability of tools. Magic rituals, which they often describe as secret and serious, include the use of mobile phones for producing video-recordings, pictures and life broadcasts on social networks.
Vrăjitoare use many tools and objects in their work, for example each woman has cards. Other objects include a crystal ball, mussels, dolls, crosses, pictures of Jesus and Virgin Mary, candles, a threat, a lock and a key, a horseshoe, etc., and last but not least, they use a broom and a wooden stick. They also work with natural elements: water, fire, herbs, plants and animals. They produce potions and protective talismans. To achieve the desired effect, everything must be “cleaned” and the actions carried out with these objects must be instructed or directly performed by the witch.
Apart from love issues, people contact vrăjitoare because of different diseases. Magic rituals are supposed to restore health, but there are also practices aimed to do harm or produce a disease in another person. The most common diseases are Epilepsy, argintul viu (quicksilver), frică spaimă (children’s fear and scare), junk (stabbing pain in the belly), impotence, problems with getting pregnant, psoriasis, hand and foot swelling, depression, headaches and alcoholism. If the disease is found to be produced in the mind or arises as a result of a spell, bewitching or black magic, the healing is in the competence of a vrăjitoare. Vrăjitoare usually cannot help with physiological problems or problems that the persons have suffered from since their birth. The book describes the different rituals and procedures used to eliminate and heal specific diseases and problems. We also asked the questions “Are these activities a tradition in some Roma groups? Is it something typically Roma?”
I have asked myself many times, why I am so fascinated by this phenomenon. Maybe this is the reason: I grew up in a Christian family where everything associated with occult practices was forbidden. We couldn’t even read horoscopes. You know, forbidden fruit is the sweetest.
Members of the dominant sedentary society usually look at the Roma people as on mystical persons who have healing powers and esoteric knowledge, including the ability of fortune telling. The advent of science and technology and increasing secularisation have not ensured the disappearance of so called superstitions and belief in fortune telling. Witchcraft not only survived It’s very much alive in Romania.
F-Stop: You talk about working with an ethnologist on this project, how did that come about? How does your collaboration work?
LS: Ivana and I have known each other since childhood. Ivana had published a book about Roma women before this project began. It is a really interesting book in a literary way, it is a scientific study but the language is well readable for general public. I like it. When I received a grant for Vrăjitoare project I decided to ask her to join me on this. We have agreed to make a fusion between photographic work and an ethnological study, link science with art into a visually attractive book. Our collaboration was great. It was a one hundred percent match. Both of us have passion for our work and also we got closer as friends immediately. If we had some problems we supported one another and we respected the opinion of each other. Our collaboration is based on reciprocal, trusting relationship of teamwork more than on individualism. I could understand this phenomenon deeper because of Ivana’s research and use it in photography work.
F-Stop: What is your process for making these images or your creative process more generally?
LS: In the beginning, my idea was to be an observer and not disturb the rituals because I thought that it could lose authenticity otherwise. From my research before hand I had a vision about how the rituals would look -wonderful, great and traditional. I was wrong, the only thing that was amazing was their marketing. We as two students weren’t an interesting enough audience for them.
There was always a lot of chaos during our visits. Sometimes I felt like I was their private photographer for their PR on social media. Afterward I had to send them the photos that they would then post on their Facebook profile. It was hard to be focused on my “own” moments in all of this. Often there were many women demonstrating a spell and they would continually shout at me: Hey you, come here, you must photograph this, it is really important. But mostly they wanted a private portrait with magical objects, of course for their Facebook page. We had to do this because we couldn’t pay them. This was the way how we could do it for free. Later I realised that I should use these images. I stopped capturing only my “own” moments and started taking pictures of this weird reality. For example, young women made selfies during the rituals and they uploaded live videos to Facebook. I focused more on their self-presentation and I tried to record the consequences of globalisation that has inherently transformed this profession which itself balances on the thin divide between mysticism and showmanship for the client.
F-Stop: How did you find the women you photograph and what were you looking to capture for this particular series?
LS: At first, I was looking for a topic for my new photo project for my Bachelor’s work when I found this video on youtube, “Witness: Gypsy witch”. I was so fascinated that I decided to go Romania on my own with no financial support. I found a guy on the website Couchsurfing (a platform for travellers), his name is Cosmin and he helped me with translating and with organisational matters.
The witches have ads in newspapers and magazines as well as their own websites or Facebook profiles where you can find their phone numbers. You just call and arrange a meeting in their house. Sometimes you can even find some ads such as posters or small DIY banners in the streets of Bucharest.
F-Stop: What do you hope people feel or maybe learn from these photographs?
LS: Our purpose wasn’t to create a sensation or evaluation of their activities. We were also not acting as “truth – seekers”. Through photos and text in this book, we are simply trying to objectively introduce this rare phenomenon. It is on the audience to make their own opinion.
F-Stop: Are you working on any other projects currently?
LS: Right now I have to finish the theoretical part of my Master’s exams. I have nothing specific for now but I know I will certainly cooperate with Ivana again in the future.
F-Stop: What photographers or other artists inspire you?
LS: There are a lot of photographers who inspire me. I like images of Martin Kollár which are somewhere between reality and fiction, the ordinary and the absurd. I admire Gábor Arion Kundás work, especially his commissions for Wienerberger company – it is a perfect fusion of documentary and staged photography, art and commercial work. Next I would like to mention Louis de Belle and his photography series “Besides Faith”, Martin Parr and his gently ironic sense of humor, and the highest visual strength and beauty of Graciela Iturbide’s photography, Gypsies by Josef Koudelka and lots of others.
To see more of Lucia Sekerková’s work: www.sekerkovalucia.cz