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Spotlight: Carlos Becerra Captures the Cult of Maria Lionza

By David Schonauer   Monday March 12, 2018


In 2014, Caracas-based freelance photographer Carlos Becerra  began traveling to Sorte, the mountain in western Venezuela that is home to the cult of Maria Lionza, a deity with indigenous, African and Christian roots whose devotees can be found throughout Venezuelan society. Pilgrims journey to Sorte to pay homage to the goddess, though the most important day is October 12, when the major shamans and priests of the religion come to worship. For some, says Becerra, the religion, a sort of Santeria in which devotees enter trancelike states and perform traditional rituals like walking on embers, can seem “creepy and dark.”

“But I intended to approach that devotion, which for many people is satanic or mad, as faith,” he notes, adding, “What is wrong with faith?”

The result is a body of work — Becerra says it is a “work in progress” — that captures what he calls “the magical realism of Sorte.” The image at top, which was named a winner of the Latin American Fotografía 6  competition, shows a man in a trance dancing on glass.

“From the point of view of a Christian, Muslim or Buddhist, there are differences in who owns the truth, so who is right?” says Bercerra. “The common point of these religions is faith, as a concept, as an ideal state to be pursued. Faith is the belief that something within you brings a higher energy to your soul. I part from the point of view that faith is a belief that is not based on facts or proof but on blind trust; I accept that faith is pure and from every point of view I approached it as something legitimate.”

“These portraits do not try to capture the subject,” says Becerra. “They portray an abstract part of the cult that serves as a vehicle of faith to give a new perspective to those who conceive it differently and maybe generate other reaction away from rejection in the common denominator.”

Bercerra says that when began his project on the cult of Maria Lionza, he was inspired by Magnum photographer Cristina Garcia Rodero’s depictions of traditional festivities – religious and pagan — in Spain. He soon found his project to be a greater challenge than he imagined.

“Sorte is a difficult place. It is dangerous because there is a lot of organized crime in the area,” he says. “One day, a shooting arose between bandits and locals defending their territory. We hid behind palm trees to avoid the bullets. The next day retaliation was expected by the bandits.”

Accommodations at Sorte are non-existent, notes Becerra. “There are no places to stay,” he says. “You have to take your own food with you. The shower is in the river, and the bathroom is nature. You sleep in tents, if you can sleep at all: The drums and the screams are heard 24 hours a day. Whenever you go to Sorte, you come back a little afraid, a little thinner and very smelly.”

Becerra began his work in Sorte the same year that he closed his IT company and took up his hobby of photography as a full-time profession. It was also the moment when Venezuela’s collapsing economy and political structures led to widespread protests. Becerra’s images of the upheaval and Venezuelan society have been published by The New York Times , The Washington Post, The Guardian,  Le Figaro, Le Monde, and CNN, among other news organizations.

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Dispatches from Latin America