Spotlight: Fran Antmann Among the Maya Healers of Guatemala

By David Schonauer   Monday February 11, 2019

It began with the father of medical anthropology.

Benjamin Paul wrote on a variety of subjects in the field of Mayan ethnography, from bone setting and midwifery to coffee production, education and the emergence of an indigenous tradition of painting. He spent 60 years working in the Guatemalan town of San Pedro la Laguna, on the southwest shore of Lake Atitlán. There, he became a beloved legend — when he died in 2005, there were days of mourning in the village, and a mass was said at the local Roman Catholic church.

It was Benjamin Paul’s daughter, Janie Paul, who first told photographer Fran Antmann about San Pedro la Laguna. The two had been roommates in college, and in 2005, shortly after Benjamin Paul’s death at age 94, the two of them, along with Antmann’s daughter Yasmin, traveled to San Pedro. There, Antmann began her own long project. The result is her book  “Maya Healers: A Thousand Dreams,” which explores indigenous healing practices among the Maya people of Guatemala. Antmann’s work was named a winner of the Latin American Fotografia 7 competition.

“Following in the footsteps of my friend's father who was so beloved in this town, I was treated like an honored guest,” Antmann says. “I was befriended by younger generations of the same families that the Pauls had known. Over the next ten years, I returned to this village almost every summer.”

“I was privileged to have gained such intimate access and trust to witness healings and to have been invited to enter the forest with them to view sacred Maya sites,” Antmann says. “I accompanied the healers to the small windowless spaces where I saw ancient rituals practiced over dirt floors.  As a writer and photographer, I listened to the voices of healers and shamans who are believed to have connections with the supernatural and who derive their power and knowledge from dreams.”

The ceremonies are “part of a sacred process that binds together healer and community,” Antmann says. “These rituals survive despite the genocide of the Maya people perpetrated over several decades by government forces. Until 1996 the practice of these rituals was forbidden.”

Here is how she describes the “power and mystery” of the area and the healing rituals in her book:

The sky holds its own secrets, which are only revealed to those who can read them. Early in the day, the sun pushed through the clouds and the shadows of the volcanoes that surround the lake. Later, as morning settles, the volcanoes lose their phantom presence and take n a three-dimensional, sculptural look. In the late afternoon, the daily rain arrives, sucking the color out of the landscape. The volcanoes slowly recede, evaporating into the clouds, their contours barely visible until finally, they disappear. Then it all melds together — water, horizon, volcanoes, sky, memory.

Antmann began her project shooting film, then changed to a Nikon digital camera. “When I was shooting the healers, the interior light was often very dim, coming from a small window and a naked bulb, so I often used a tripod,” she says. “The scenes were so intimate and intense, and sometimes people were in a great deal of pain, so I needed to be very sensitive to their situation. I spent a great deal of time getting to know the healers I was working with.”

Antmann studied art at Bennington College, earned an M.A. at Hunter College and received a doctorate in Fine Arts from New York University. She teaches photography at Baruch College, CUNY.

As a documentary photographer, Antmann has focused on the lives and culture of the indigenous people of Guatemala, Mexico, the Dene First Nation people of the Western Canadian Arctic and the Inuit of Baffin Island, Canada. A Fulbright fellowship took her to Peru when she was pursuing her doctorate, and she ended up living in the Peruvian Andes for two years in a small mining town researching and recovering the work of the Peruvian photographer Sebastian Rodriguez (1896-1968).

“I also pursued my own photographic project of the same mining town and people. I continued working in Peru with an anthropologist doing research on historical Peruvian photography and together we co-founded the Fototeca Andina in Cuzco for the preservation of historical Andean photography,” she says.

Dispatches from Latin America