'Save Your Soul' – The Mexican Catholic Sect Who Speak To The Dead

Photographs courtesy of Luján Agusti.
Portrait of a Mexican girl holding the Catholic cross.
Luján Agusti began her photographic project Salva tu Alma (which translates to ‘Save Your Soul’) when she moved to Mexico at the end of 2014. Her aim initially had been to document Mexican syncretism in the parts of the country where Catholicism has fused with indigenous, pre-Hispanic beliefs. Spending several months immersing herself in these communities, what Agusti discovered was far more intense than she expected. Finding herself on a visual journey through sorcery, magic and tales of encounters with the devil, Agusti met a number of women who changed the course of the project entirely. In the end, Salva tu Alma turned into a personal odyssey too.
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Photographs courtesy of Luján Agusti.
Portrait of a woman during a procession in honour of the "Santa Muerte" (Holy Death), Oaxaca, 2015.
Agusti was born in a city called Puerto Madryn on the Argentine Patagonian coast. Her family moved to Buenos Aires when she was still a child, but those early years in the immense and solitary territories of Patagonia really shaped her pull towards matters of identity and community in liminal zones. Describing herself as agnostic, Agusti attributes her lifelong interest in religion and belief to these childhood experiences, and her own fragmented spiritual journey. She didn’t grow up religious but for a long time, she explains, she was looking for answers, and often found herself searching for them through the diverse beliefs of the people whose paths she crossed. "I think there is something beyond us," she muses, "but I have not yet managed to find the answer that feels right for me. I am always a little envious of those who believe in something, because I would like to believe too." There’s a comfort in belief, a certain serenity, and a feeling of safety or belonging for some. "Over time, it became my obsession to visually study the beliefs and practices of others," she explains.
Photo of Wisard in his cave where he does spells, Catemaco, Veracruz, 2015.
Woman shows her tattoo – a promise to the Santa Muerte (Holy Death).
The images in Salva tu Alma are dark and almost painterly, as if taken during the depths of night or at twilight on stormy days. Her subjects are sometimes suspended in a deep blackness, and at other times, they eclipse in and out of deep shadow, their faces occasionally illuminated. As well as people, Agusti introduces us to an array of strange objects and bodily appendages including taxidermy birds, masks, extravagant costume jewellery and intricately detailed tattoos. This is a deeply theatrical and performative religious sect, and its members imbue objects and signs with a lot of symbolic weight. "There is a strong belief in the power of nature," Agusti says, "animals and plants and their individual symbolisms, which change from region to region." She explains that the jaguar – linked to power – is an example of an animal that has had a very important role since pre-Hispanic times, as has maize, a fundamental source of food in the life of native people and a representation of fertility. From these glimmers of belief, whole myths have followed along with an enormously rich visual language. "The representation takes on the same importance as the object itself in the end, so a photograph or a statuette or a tattoo become very important in religiosity." The mask, too, is an important symbolic element in Mexican culture, and some of Agusti’s photographs study this in more detail. "The belief is that when you use a mask you enter another plane entirely. You stop being who you are and become someone else, closer to your deity."
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Photographs courtesy of Luján Agusti.
Portrait of a shaman who leads rituals in Mexico City
In the middle of her process, Agusti met a woman who affirmed being in contact with her [Agusti's] mother, who had died 10 years previously, from beyond the grave. The experience shook Agusti to her core as the woman described her mother exactly as she had been. "A good friend of mine, Yahaira, had an aunt who was said to be able to contact people in the afterlife and who can predict death too. While I lived with her, another woman named Maria del Rosario spent the night at our house, and spoke to Yahaira of a lady with a very particular look who had lifted her out of the room to tell her something that night. During their subsequent search to find out who this woman could be, they found a picture of my mother I had put up on social media and Maria confirmed that that was who had visited her that night." Though she was hesitant in her scepticism, something changed for Agusti after that. "It is very common for Mexican people to believe that the dead are always intervening in the lives of the living and at the time I was already in touch with a number of people who were working with the 'realm beyond' and performing rituals which I participated in as a spectator. But this was something very different and I felt destabilised. The issue I had decided to investigate invaded me, making me question my own beliefs." Agusti stopped photographing for a while and when she did return to the project it grew instead into a visual notebook in which she transcribed her confusion through loosely connected images, seeking to give form to things for which she couldn’t find words.
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Photographs courtesy of Luján Agusti.
Woman holding her figure of Santa Muerte (Holy Death).
Photographs courtesy of Luján Agusti.
Woman holding her figure of Santa Muerte (Holy Death).
It is the connections with other women that have stayed with Agusti from this project, and her interest in the stigma attached to womanhood became increasingly important. "Mexican culture is very 'machista' and that translates to all areas of daily life," she explains. "The role of women varies depending on tradition." For instance, there are many rituals she encountered in which the protagonists are men, and women are only spectators. "The men are the ones that go out to dance, eat and drink, while the women stay at home." Little by little, she acknowledges, this has begun to change and in some dances you can see the participation of young women reclaiming their space. "On the other hand, though, machismo reifies women by placing them in roles associated with the damned. La Santa Muerte, the saint of those who lead a 'bad life' and a personification of death, is a woman. Plus, there are many legends of women that appear to men at night and lead to perdition or death. It’s this idea of woman as an object of desire that only brings bad omens. Also, in various iterations of witchcraft, the vast majority of key figures are women too."
Photographs courtesy of Luján Agusti.
Woman holding her figure of Santa Muerte (Holy Death).
There are particularly powerful pictures of women and young girls in the project. In one, a woman looks back at the camera, staring intensely into it, her face flooded with red light. Agusti explains that this was taken during a procession of devotees of the aforementioned Santa Muerte. "Santa Muerte is a saint not accepted by the Catholic church, although its devotees are, and it is venerated by people who consider themselves to lead a 'bad life' like assassins, thieves and prostitutes." The procession takes place a few days before the Day of the Dead and it is very common for the devotees to march carrying statuettes of the Santa Muerte, which they dress for the occasion. In another image a young girl named Avril carries a cross that is said to protect her family home during Holy Week. "It is very common for Mexican houses to be built to have a cross to protect the construction and then the house."
"Many things have changed in me throughout the course of this project," Agusti says. It was a way to learn about herself, yes, but she also developed a profound respect for the people she met through witnessing their beliefs and practices in such close proximity. "I think there is something of all that experience that will remain with me for the rest of my life. The impact frightened me certainly, but I also understood the respect and value for nature in a way I hadn’t truly before and that’s amazing. After all, the vast majority of pre-Hispanic traditions always take us back to that and that’s what I had wanted to explore."
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