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Spotlight: Annick Donkers Photographs the Spirit Animal Healers of Costa Chica

By David Schonauer   Monday September 17, 2018


Annick Donkers  first went to Mexico’s Guerrero state in 2016.

“To celebrate the New Year, a friend and I went to the beach in Marquelia, which is part of the coastal region south of Acapulco known as the Costa Chica,” says the Mexico City-based documentary photographer. “I thought Guerrero was beautiful, despite all the negative news we always hear about this region. For me it was special that this region was home to Afro Mexicans — Mexicans descended from African slaves, who identify themselves as being ‘black.’ Outside this region, they are little-known and they hadn’t been officially recognized by the Mexican State.” Donkers determined to return to document the culture of Afro Mexicans.

“I contacted a local journalist to get more inside in the region and he told me that they had traditional healers called curanderos del tono, or spirit animal healers,” says Donkers.

According to local legend, she notes, when a baby is born, a family member brings the child to the mountains or wilderness where wild animals pass by. “The first creature to approach the child will be the child's spirit animal, or tono in spanish,” she says. “Since there is now a dependency created between child and animal, when the animal is hurt, wounded or dies, the person is too. In the Afro-Mexican communities there are healers that will cure these animal-related illnesses, since conventional medicine will not work. The person is cured with herbs selected by the healers and also according to the needs of the animal. I went to look for these healers and tried to capture the remains of this tradition.”

The result is work that was later named a winner of the Latin American Fotografía 6  competition.

On of the healers that Donkers met was Doña Inez, whom she photographed during a healing session (at top). “She is a midwife, chiropractor and traditional healer. We became friends and I have returned to her house several times. Every time she would crack my bones,” says Donkers.

One day, says Donkers, Doña Inez said she would take the photographer to the place where she finds the spirit animals. “So, we walked through fields, and she showed me a lake with crocodiles, and she said we would then would walk the route the crocodile takes at night to go from the lake to the river. The whole route I just hoped there no crocodiles would show up, but she assured me it was fine and she could talk to the animal and that he wouldn’t hurt us,” says Donkers.


Mountain view of the Costa Chica in Guerrero State


Juan Varga Cruz, a traditional Afro-Mexican healer


Norma Oliva Morga, a traditional healer, demonstrating her technique


Another time she was presented to the “crocodile man.”

“He was happy and jumped in the water and held his breathe for a minute under the water. He would stick his head out, looking around for his prey and go under water again. His family assured me that he had rescued children from being drown in the river, at places people couldn't reach, and that he would sometimes gather with the other crocodiles in the river to chat.”

Donkers was also named a winner of the Latin American Fotografía 5 competition for her series on ultra-violent Lucha Libre Extrema wrestling in the village of Tulancingo, the village where El Santo, Mexico’s most famous pro wrestler, was born. Her work often focuses on local traditions and belief systems.


“I am currently working on another personal story about beliefs that I haven´t showed yet to the public because it is a slow process,” she says. “The story is based on a personal experience I had at the age of 10 and is about persons who are believers in the existence of extraterrestrial life.”

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Dispatches from Latin America