"Nin illness, neither knife nor bullet… Between Wednesday and Friday none of us dies”, confide some of the devotees accompanied by the photographer from Belém, Guy Veloso, during Holy Week. These, in particular, come from Oriximiná, a city in the heart of the Amazon. Over 17 years, Veloso registered 203 groups like this, also called confraternities, in 13 states, in the five regions of the country. Part of his vast research, composed of data and photos, is now released in book format, entitled Penitents – from blood rites to the fascination of the end of the world, this being the first Brazilian volume of photographs that addresses the issue of penitents nationwide. The publication was awarded by the Itaú Cultural Directions for 2017-2018 e is available online. The photobook is curated by Rosely Nakagawa, with an epilogue written by her, by the philosopher Guilherme Ghisoni Da Silva, and by Guy Veloso himself. 

who are the penitents 

Penitents are spontaneous, mystical groups, often secret, who go out into the night praying for “suffering spirits”. Its origin dates back to the medieval period in Italy, when men took a vow to purge individual and collective sins. For this they flogged themselves, receiving the name of “flagellants”. In the 13th century, the vote spread throughout the Old World, particularly during the Black Death, spanning centuries and finding fertile ground in the Iberian Peninsula. Interpreting the text “The Will to Know”, by Michel Foucault, Rosely Nakagawa points out that “far beyond confession, the penitent must 'produce the truth' concretely, leaving marks, evidence of this scourge”.

Today, flagellation occurs in only 4% of congregations, in rare and dramatic cases in the strictly male societies of Bahia, Ceará and Sergipe, practitioners of self-flagellation in a format similar to that of centuries ago in Europe. They are called here the Rite of Blood, a way for devotees to imitate Jesus. The vow is accompanied by certain demands that must be strictly respected, otherwise, damage can be caused to health by the spirits, they believe. Obligations include abstinence from alcohol, dancing, gambling and sex; to the latter, they believe that disrespect can lead to excessive bleeding during penance and possibly death. The vow lasts for a period of seven years and the Rite of Blood ceremony ends only when the hood and robe are completely dyed red.

Generally, penance is practiced during Lent and Holy Week, with men and women performing nightly parades beginning at midnight: “They die in a moment; and until midnight the peoples are troubled, and they pass away, and the mighty shall not be taken by the hand of man” (Job, 34:20). The rituals, although dressed in theatricality and mystery, are reserved, sometimes even secret, something justified by the prejudice suffered by the Recommenders of Souls (as they are also called) by the local population, in addition to church discrimination and police persecution. In this sense, Veloso's work works to validate these rites that are part of our immaterial culture. As Guilherme Ghisoni da Silva says in the book’s epilogue: “We should not deny the culture we have, but look it in the eyes, as the photographer does, and understand that what is visible there is ourselves.” 

In European and African influences, Veloso seeks the Brazilian syncretism that leads him to deepen the question of penance. It is inserted in Brazil by colonization and undergoes transformations as it comes into contact with a multicultural, multiethnic country, with diverse faith - demonstrated in multiple religions such as spiritism, Umbanda, pajelança -, and coexisting customs, superstitions and local beliefs. So much so that they are family-based organizations that have authority; there are no central leaders, no dogmas, penance itself is not a religion, although most of its practitioners are Catholic, according to Veloso. The syncretism, which shapes these different practices, also ends up fusing the contemporary Brazilian regional culture to the cult of medieval European origin in a unique way. Some of the images contained in the book – such as a penitent with a cell phone in her hand and the presence of cars and motorcycles – seem like a reminder of the contemporaneity of the images, taking us out of a landscape that invokes medieval times and facing something that subsists in the corners of today's Brazil. .

they ask for nothing

the ones ask for nothing Soul Orderers, at least not for themselves. The ceremonies of penance are imbued with strong altruism: favors are requested for souls in need, on another plane; in our, grieving families are comforted as they watch their loved ones be remembered. When they go out into the night, penitents are covered in unusual clothing, often hiding their entire bodies in white fabrics with embroidered crosses. His arrival is announced by the somber sound of the blessed, ejaculations and litanies. They should never look back, the entourages march in single file precisely because of this, because the pity of those who return to the path already traveled is to glimpse the souls that accompany them in the processions, at least that is what the Brothers believe. of Souls. A rule with an almost philosophical core. 

Documenting the Orderers of Souls

Several of these brotherhoods had never been documented before this project. Veloso began to think about it in 1998, when he saw 15 people on the pilgrimage to Juazeiro do Norte (CE) with blue robes and crosses embroidered on their backs. That was the first penitent group that the photographer had contact with, the so-called Aves de Jesus, although it was only in 2002 that this “initiated penitent” structured his research project and sought similar organizations in other northeastern states, expanding to the national territory. from 2009. 

One of the orders he visited, that of the penitents of Juazeiro, in Bahia, recognized him as one of its members, allowing him to participate in closed cults. In the book, Veloso refers to them as “my group”, and it is to the leader of De Trás da Banca, Dona Nenezinha, that he dedicates his work. By being accepted and getting closer in his photography, physically and metaphorically, the people from Belen safeguard a part of this tradition with the feat of registering so much of something so hidden and so fleeting. 

Along with art and religiosity, there is in his work a strong anthropological. For Ghisoni da Silva: “The photographer's discovery that there are Recommenders of Souls in the five regions of the country is proof of important academic value”. A fascinating part of this world would have been blown away if Veloso had not approached the issue in such a way, collecting video interviews and sound recordings, original pieces of vows, rattles and mantles – perhaps the largest collection of the theme in Brazil. This aspect is found in the visual records due to the documentary character that is established in his work and coexists with the strong artistic expression with which the images are endowed. There is the intimacy and commitment to those photographed, and the look of a researcher who has dedicated himself for years to documenting their stories. An observer willing to give us the benefit of not being dispossessed of judgment in front of the image, but of extending the invitation to further reflection. 

dual religiosity

At a certain point in the book, Ghisoni da Silva asks: “Is it the spiritual asceticism of the portrayed individual that gives expressive force to the images or is it the spiritual asceticism of the photographer himself?”. To which he himself responds, stating that “it is in the union of this double religiosity, of what is seen and what he sees, that the documentation of religious rituals achieves the status of art in Guy Veloso. It is because we see the world through a genuinely spiritual gaze that figures in the night, veiled in translucent fabrics, become the gateway to the ineffable dimension of the divine.” Ever since he was a child, when he watched the passing of the Círio de Nazaré in front of his grandmother's house, Veloso has a search for the sacred as part of his life. 

The spiritual gaze referred to above is noticeable in the photographs through the blurs – coming from the low shutter speed to shooting at night without flash and very little lighting -, from the distortions in the colors, in the frames exposed more than once, by the “leaked” lights on the device and even by the problems in the development, maintained by Veloso in the same way as one of his “resolved” photos. This aesthetic took shape in the project and created a signature for Veloso.. After all, your work it is photography-expression in which the way, the style, produces meaning, there is the praise of the form and the need for a format assumed by the author, as conceptualized by the theorist André Rouillé. There are many levels of perception in Veloso's images, on the one hand, the explicit information and on the other hand, what is implicit, the unspeakable that takes shape and is subscribed to the atmosphere created by the photographer within his narrative with the penitents. They, the images, fascinate, whether for the discomfort they cause us, for fear, excitement, curiosity or distress, fulfilling the function of photography as a trigger of emotions.

The photo shows the ceiling of a hotel room in Carmópolis, painted as if it were the sky
Hotel room, Carmópolis-SE, 2018. Digital. Book legend.

At the beginning of the epilogue, the observer is asked with something that is at the heart of this project and is answered at the point where the records end and the words begin: “What meaning can religiosity still have in a world in which philosophers have already declared the overcoming of God as the foundation of reality and psychologists, the pathologies that affect superstitions?”.


Guy Veloso: Penitents
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