Santa Muerte by Angus Fraser, reviewed by Ollie Gapper

A quick flick through of Santa Muerte does absolutely no justice to its delicately balanced power and insight. The images within the book are transformed by one another and simultaneously require and deserve time to fully appreciate. The accompanying essays do well to present a detailed yet concise context to the culture around Santa Muerte without sounding patronising or assuming too much prior knowledge. My personal understanding of Santa Muerte before reading the book had come as a result of one Breaking Bad episode, yet this book somehow manages to slice through these preconceptions and present the religion in a much more balanced manner.

The utilitarian essence of the books design perfectly compliments this more intelligent exploration of Santa Muerte, instilling confidence in the perspectives assumed and the information presented. Photographs of the shrines for Santa Muerte are still, quiet images with a slight border to allow for their static presence to be felt clearly. Breaking these images up are the full bleed energetic and lively images snapped from within the crowds and the cult of La Santa Muerte. These images feel more direct and unfiltered, with a rawness that reinforces the works overtones of neutrality and unbiased representation. To have been uninfluenced by existing and previous representations of La Santa Muerte must have been difficult, yet Fraser seems to manage this with great dexterity; paying due attention to the criminal elements yet equally balancing these with other more innocent and banal ones throughout.

This is all wrapped in a book that epitomises the stigma around Santa Muerte. It resembles some kind of illegal/taboo book or anarchist manifesto that would be hard to own without the fact being registered by a government computer somewhere. This is a book I have become very fond of having around. Its visual language and design just synchronise so well that its hard not to return to it over and over again to explore and examine the world held within its pages to see if there was something I missed. There nearly always is.

An Interview with Angus Fraser:

OG: What was your first experience with La Santa Muerte/its representation?

AF: “In 2010,  I was researching for my MA Photography degree. The subject was based on pilgrimage sites, considered both religious and secular, and I travelled across Europe documenting different sites. Near the end of my research I came across the very elaborate, colourful shrines that Santa Muerte devotees create and felt this could be another new, but related project for me to pursue. In 2012 I had raised enough cash for me to travel out there, hire an interpreter and document just the shrines. I was happy with the outcome, but due to a personal and raw experience with death a few months after my return, I decided I wanted to document this culture in full in the hope that I could try and understand their perception of death further.”

OG: Do you feel any of these perceptions have helped with your understanding of death?

AF: “I think it has made me more reflective on the nature of death and come to terms with what I experienced to some degree. The Mexican perception generally is one of initial mourning, but then celebrating the fact the soul will still endure – hence Day of the Dead. With Santa Muerte that feeling is even more accentuated – in a way a defense mechanism. But there are still more questions I want to ask and hence I will keep on looking at other things related to death.”

OG: What was it that first interested you La Santa Muerte and its devotee’s relationship with it?

AF: “On top I what I mentioned above, there is an obvious visual attraction to Santa Muerte the icon. Western society had been attracted  to the idea of the grim reaper for centuries, as are Mexican and international devotees attracted to their skeleton saint. Also, being a ‘new’ religion, the self proclaimed spiritual leaders of Santa Muerte use photography on various platforms of social media to advertise their gatherings and meetings. Photographs are placed on shrines of missing loved ones, of deceased family members and of individuals a devotee may want harmed or have retribution against. At times, the visual language of the cult and Mexico in general is quite overpowering, and I used my photography to try to clear the noise to purely focus on the shrines, devotees and rituals of the cult in a way the viewer can comprehend.”

OG: It’s clear that your images are not intended to impart an opinion on La Santa Muerte, but I am interested: Having spent so long researching and experiencing it first hand, what are your feelings toward this cult?

AF: “In America and in Western media in general, Santa Muerte is portrayed sensationally as the Saint of the drug cartels and/or a saint for devil-worshippers. I wanted to portray a more balanced, nuanced view by recording what I saw – everyday Mexicans trying to get on with their life – and their devotion to Santa Muerte. The reader/viewer can hopefully have a more informed opinion on what is the fastest growing religion in the Americas. Obviously there are images in the book that appear ‘sensationalist’ but I tried to record everything I saw from an impartial viewpoint. I am not a believer in any particular faith, but I am fascinated in religion for all its wrongs and rights, and my lasting impression of the cult is that considering all the negative press it gets, I cannot think of more more welcoming religion to all the ‘marginalised and disenfranchised people’. A lot of the devotees came from all walks of society and I think they had generally had enough of the violence and corruption in their country and just wanted a saint who could appear just as mean and menacing as the life can be in Mexico, but also could be loving and giving at the same time.”

OG: How difficult was it for you to avoid being influenced by the sensationalist representations that already existed?

AF: “If you Google Santa Muerte in images, one of the first things you will see will be of some person smoking a big joint and blowing cannabis onto a statue – a form of blessing and hence why it is viewed as the saint of criminals/drug cartels. I purposefully did not shoot that cliched image, because even though I saw it occasionally happen it was a slight misrepresentation. The majority of the time the rituals were and are similar to Catholic rituals. The only part in the book where the images perhaps feel sensationalist is in Oscar Pelcastre’s Cathedral, the ‘baptism of fire’ image for example. This is because Oscar wanted to show how powerful he was. His ego demanded and it is how he controls his flock. There was an atmosphere of trepidation amongst his minions and they were afraid to upset him. This menacing atmosphere is what I recorded exactly and I felt I had to represent it impartially as I had at the other protagonists locations.”

OG: I suppose it’s hard to assign a skin colour to an icon without skin. Is there a greater sense of parity felt with the image of Santa Muerte compared with the more predominantly caucasian represented deities in catholicism and christianity?

AF: “That is a good question and I think you have hit the nail on the head, so to speak. Many times I heard Enriqueta describe herself and Santa Muerte as a ‘bruja’ (pronounced bruhaa ), which roughly translates in Mexican street slang as a tough son of a bitch. This idea that Santa Muerte is one of them and not some white, caucasian saint is one of the main reasons why she is so popular. She knows their plight and will fight their corner. The fact that She is also facing attacks from the Catholic Church and the American Press and still seemingly winning due to her growing popularity, makes her even more worthy and respected.”

OG: It seems that much of La Santa Muerte’s success stems from a desire for acceptance and belonging, as succinctly stated in Eva Aridjis’ essay within your book “Followers of La Santa Muerte are often marginalised and disenfranchised people, but their belief in her provides them with confidence and a community to which they can belong”. How much have you found La Santa Muerte builds these communities and how necessary have they been to the people involved?

AF: “Echoing what I mentioned in the last answer, the social issues that many Mexicans face on a daily basis has allowed Santa Muerte to grow exponentially. They need a saint who appears menacing enough to oppose the issues they face. I met many devotees and spiritual leaders during my time in Mexico, but for the book a decision was made to focus on the three leaders/protagonists who get the most exposure both nationally and internationally. The two ‘Enriquetas’ who feature in the book where definitely all about community. Enriqueta Vargas especially often went to hold services in communities that are isolated both geographically and socially. Whereas in the temple of Oscar Pelacastre it was more about his ego and the commercial aspects of his enterprise. Commercialism does play an important role in the cult’s prominence, and devotees are not ashamed to pray for financial success. So even though on the surface the devotees may appear marginalised, they are just as savvy as the next enterprising Mexican.”

OG: Whilst the individual images within the book each possess their own power and poignance, the book (and I mean this in the most complimentary way) feels greater than the sum of its parts. How transformative for the work did you find working with designer Victoria Forrest?

AF: “Well I think that is the sign of any well edited, sequenced and designed book. Victoria is great and I actually first approached her with a dummy book I had made before I got the Bar-Tur Award. We were in the preliminary stages of editing when I found out I had won. From then on, it was actually collaborating with Hannah Watson from Trolley and Anna Danneman from the Photographers Gallery, that decisions on edit, sequence and design were made. Obviously Victoria had her input, but the idea for the cover and extracts of text were mine originally. I always wanted the book to feel more like a bible than a photobook. I think we have achieved that. In terms of a transformative process, the many edit sessions I had with Hannah and Anna were brutal. When I first sent a dummy to Victoria, I had based the structure of the book on the 7 colours of Santa Muerte. In hindsight, this first edit was very confusing and through the many edit sessions we undertook, we eventually decided to focus on the three protagonists and their devotees stories. I have many images that, while not selected for the book, would work well for an exhibition. And on the flipside there are images in the book that work well in their sequence, but would not stand alone in an exhibition. There is no doubt I have learnt a lot from producing my first book, but I have also seen many books and I always had a gut instinct of how the book should appear – it is very similar to that original instinct.”

Santa Muerte by Angus Fraser is available to purchase here.

Ollie Gapper graduated from UCA Rochester in 2014 with a degree in Photography (Contemporary Practice). He is currently studying an MA in Photography with a long-term focus on photobooks and the American landscape.