Photographers' Blog

Recharging the mystical powers

Wat Bang Phra, Thailand

By Damir Sagolj

A devotee with a small zoo of animals tattooed on his body speeds toward the large statue of the Big Master, jumping over others and making unusual sounds and gestures. A volunteer standing in his way is big but fortunately very quick to stop the frantic run before a man crashes into the stage. A tattooed man bounces off the volunteer’s huge body, wakes-up from the trance and calmly goes back into the crowd. The air-bag volunteer turns to his colleagues and, as if nothing special is happening, comments in the ultra-cool manner of Bud Spencer (remember the Banana Joe movie?) “It is hot today. Very hot.”

And it’s hot indeed. It’s the beginning of the Thai summer. Only a few hours after the sunrise, the temperature is over 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). It is also abnormally humid. However, people who came to Wat Bang Phra today don’t really care for such banal things as heat and humidity – they are here for a higher cause.

Every year, on a special day in March thousands of devotees from all around Thailand (some from abroad, too) travel for the Magic Tattoo festival to Nakhon Prathom province, just over an hour drive from Bangkok. The festival takes place at a temple well known for “magically charged” tattoos.

People with such tattoos believe the inked drawings with elaborate designs of animals and sacred scripts give them mystical powers – protection from bullets and other danger, along with other benefits. They are made all across the country and very different people wear them, just like the amulets you can see everywhere in Thailand. When soldiers from the Thai army went to Iraq on a peacekeeping mission, 443 of them carried 6000 magic amulets for protection.

Tattoos and amulets are made elsewhere but Wat Bang Phra is a special place and the most famous for its powerful, magic tattoos. A few days before the festival, I spoke to a young man from Bangkok’s notorious Khlong Toey slum about his tattoos. Salut got his first tattoo at the age of 17. Now, nine years later, most of his skin is covered in inked drawings and there is barely enough space for another. But, he needs more tattoos, saying they protect him from danger and give him extra self-confidence. After observing his body and smoking a menthol cigarette (that, along with flowers, is offered in exchange for tattoos), a Buddhist monk pulls out a traditional half meter long needle and starts inking sacred script in the tiny empty space around the young man’s left nipple.

Exorcism at the ghost fair

Malajapur, India

By Danish Siddiqui

Malajpur is a small but not ordinary village in central India. In fact it is probably the only village in India which has been hosting a ghost fair for the past several years. People from across the country come to this fair to get rid of ‘evil spirits’ that they claim to be possessed by.

As night falls on Paush Purnima (full moon night) the ‘possessed’ are taken to the local shrine to be exorcised. People who bring their relatives here feel the latter’s bodies have been ‘taken over by ghosts of the dead’ and that exorcism is the only release for them. Interestingly, most of those who come here to be exorcised are women. When I asked the priest the reason he said, “They are emotionally weak and hence easy target for spirits.”

On the first day when I went to the temple, it looked to me like any other temple complex. But suddenly from the middle of the crowd I heard a woman scream as she started running around the temple courtyard. According to priests the ghost inside people becomes weak the more they run around the courtyard in an anti-clockwise direction. For those who don’t run voluntarily (which is the case often) relatives or priests make them do so by pushing or kicking.

Modern day vikings

Shetland Islands, Scotland

By David Moir

Vikings, they’re not what they used to be.

No more do we see horn helmeted warriors pillaging and plundering everything in sight, striking fear into villagers with the stories of their wickedness. No, now they sing and dance when visiting community centers, hospitals and shopping centers. Basically cheering everyone up who sing along and join in the fun on a cold wet Tuesday in January.

I have just returned from covering the Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands, Britain’s most northerly set of islands. More than 100 miles north of the Scottish mainland and closer to Bergen in Norway than London.

Shetland prides itself on its Norse heritage and its Vikings, especially for Up Helly Aa with the Guizer Jarl (the Chief Guizer), and leader of the Jarl Squad (there are another 45 squads) who are the Vikings for this special day designing and making their suits, shields and weapons for the occasion two years in advance.

Tyranny of a blood feud

Bardhaj, Albania

By Arben Celi

Visiting an Albanian family forced to live inside their walls because of a blood feud always borders on the surreal. A Reuters story of a girl armed with a hunting rifle ferrying supplies for her isolated family in her minivan was made straight into a movie and its Albanian director credited Reuters television for the idea.

There was no action in this one. The three kids had grown up inside their leaky house without ever knowing what the world outside was like. I had been trying for two months to get in touch with a teacher to help me take pictures of a family in northern Albania that had lived inside their house for the last 10 years because of a blood feud.

The teacher is one of the few people allowed into the house twice or three times a week to help the two sons and the daughter keep abreast of the curriculum. I thought she made things harder for me until I met the family myself on Friday. The mother and the 19-year-old daughter grew fearful seeing me and barely concealed their opposition when I took out the camera. But they trusted Liljana, the teacher, and did not throw me out after we made it clear we meant no harm to them. The little kids also warmed to me.

Exorcism in the Andes

By Jaime Saldarriaga

I first learned of exorcist Hermes Cifuentes, better known as “Brother Hermes,” through the local news media. His exorcisms fascinated me, so I decided to find out more. Many people are against what he does, but when I tracked down his phone number and called, he invited me to visit his retreat in La Cumbre, just north of Cali.

SLIDESHOW: MODERN-DAY EXORCISM

Brother Hermes is a very religious man. As we spoke he wore a white tunic and held a crucifix in his hand. His retreat is a farm with a small chapel filled with Catholic icons. The place is very peaceful, with hens, pigeons and rabbits roaming. He tells the people who look to him for help that they shouldn’t believe in him, but rather in the power of God.

It was only after I arrived that he told me he had two exorcisms to perform that same day, and that I could observe. We hiked up to the highest part of the farm, where there were two women dressed in white with their skin painted black, stretched out inside large rings drawn on the ground. The scene affected me deeply.

Collecting karma

By Damir Sagolj

An angel-like girl, dressed all in white carries a pack of toothbrushes on a Sunday morning. She walks slowly, smiles all around and seems not to be bothered by music so loud that one can’t hear his own thoughts. She is on her way to the Mang Teung Sua Jung Cemetery in Chonburi province – where members of a local Thai Chinese community will exhume unclaimed bodies. Toothbrushes will be used to clean the dirt from bones.

One of the first books I read after arriving in Thailand more than two years ago was Bizarre Thailand – a collection of strange tales from the “land of smiles”. It was a nice introduction to what I could expect here in Thailand but I thought to myself – I’ve seen enough elsewhere; bizarre things in other countries so nothing can surprise me.

Well, this is Thailand and things go well beyond expectations. On this day, unclaimed dead bodies are taken out of graves in the corner of a massive cemetery in Choburi province. It is a Thai Chinese ritual that has been going on for decades since diseases like malaria killed many people 90 years ago in the province. The legend goes that officials began haphazardly digging up corpses so the city could build an airport and stopped only when they were haunted by ghosts. Since then, residents have felt it necessary to leave the land untouched and to honor those who have died without loved ones.

from FaithWorld:

Russian Orthodox take icy plunges to celebrate Epiphany

Russian Orthodox believers washed away their sins by taking a plunge into icy waters on the feast of the Epiphany, which fell on Monday according to the Orthodox calendar.  The traditional triple dip commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan.  Here are several Reuters photographs and a Reuters video of Russians braving the winter cold to perform the ritual.

dip 1

A man prepares to dip in icy waters during an Orthodox Epiphany celebration, with the air temperature at about -26 degrees Celsius ( -14.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in Pereslavl-Zalessky, some 140 km (87 miles) northeast of Moscow January 19, 2010/Sergei Karpukhin

dip 2

A man gets out of the water during an Orthodox Epiphany celebration, with air temperature at about -24 degrees Celsius (-11.2 degrees Fahrenheit) in Suzdal, some 200 km (124 miles) northeast of Moscow January 19, 2010/Denis Sinyakov

dip 3

A man helps a woman out of the Bazaikha river during Orthodox Epiphany celebrations, with air temperature at about -28 degrees Celsius (-18.4 degrees Fahrenheit), in the suburbs of the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk January 19, 2010/Ilya Naymushin