The mountains and forests along the banks of the Danube are known for their dark secrets. They are home to the Vlachs – a Romance-speaking, ethnic group in southeast Europe –, for whom the world of magic is still very much alive and part of their culture: Muma Paduri wanders like a ghost through the surroundings and through the minds of these nature-bound people. Equipped with his M Typ 240 and a Summilux-M 1:1.4/50 Asph, Joan Alvado set out in search of traces of this myth, photographing an atmospheric photo essay dealing with fantasy and suggestion. He spoke with us about the representation of the unknown, and about the manipulation of the imagination.
How did you come across this topic, and how did you get to know about the Vlachs and their culture?
In 2019, I was an ‘artist in residence’ in Belgrade. This residence was a totally blank page, not restricted to any concrete place or project. A Serbian curator friend suggested that I might be interested in the Vlachs, in eastern Serbia. I heard that Vlach women have been practicing magic for centuries, and many of their rituals are linked to concrete sacred places in nature. It was a beautiful story, I really liked it. In the beginning, I thought the witchcraft topic was going to be “dark”, and maybe difficult to enter. I didn’t know about the Muma Paduri myth at that point.
When and where was the series photographed?
I photographed everything between November and December, 2019, in eastern Serbia. Mainly in Vlach villages in the areas of Kucevo and Majdanpek. I was able to work quite fast because I was collaborating with a local anthropologist who specialises in Vlach magic; so a lot of the locations, knowledge and concrete people were already quite accessible. Also certain Vlach associations and locals from Kucevo really facilitated our work.
Tell us about the myth that your project centres around, Muma Paduri.
Muma Paduri is described in Vlach culture as a female-like figure, dressed in white, who is able to transform into an animal and travel several miles in a second. There are two things that I specially liked about this myth, and which made me place it at the centre of the series. First of all, Muma Paduri is not only a myth, it still represents a real belief for certain segments of the Vlach population. And I find that amazing. Numerous living witnesses declare to have seen her or have had contact with her; and I ran across many of these testimonies. The second thing that I found very attractive (which I used a lot in the conceptualization of the project) is that Muma Paduri can appear or disappear at more or less anytime, anywhere within the Vlach forests. Consequently, for me she figures like a beautiful umbrella, encompassing all the nature and places in that area, imbuing them with a halo of mysticism. The feeling that every single place could be touched by her magic, really helped me a lot to enter into the story.
Muma Paduri is an essay based on the magic and spiritual beliefs of the Vlach people, in which, according to an earlier interview, you question our relationship with the supernatural. How did you go about doing that?
For me, magic is a branch of a larger tree: it is one of the many representations of the unknown. Since the very early ages of history, humans beings have been confronted with things that could not be rationalised with the knowledge available at the time, nor explained with the five senses. How do you explain that area that is beyond any possible rationalisation? Several civilisations give magic as one of the answers to that which cannot be explained. I consider the spiritual world of the Vlachs incredibly rich; yet it is a concrete representation of something larger, more generic. So, how do we deal with the unknown?
The series contains vintage photographs: what do they stand for?
These are images that I especially like and that come from private archives. They help to keep another kind of balance, which is an important basis for the work: the balance between past and present. We speak about beliefs that are immemorial. They come from the ancient past, and have remained alive through generations; and still we can see very clear traces of how they are present in today’s society. I like to establish parallelisms and draw these lines through time. The vintage photographs help me do that.
Please explain how you see photography as a vehicle for a journey to attain perception beyond comprehension.
Something very important about this particular story is the desire to study (and photograph!) something that is not really there; that will not be clearly visible. No matter how deep you could go into the Vlach world of magic, some things (the devil, Muma Paduri, death and the underworld…) can never be represented directly. I am aware of that, and I’m not really interested in a direct representation either. I wanted my photographs to be a little separate from reality, pushing the boundaries of documentary representation, to try and go beyond it.
How did you go about doing that?
This is a story based on suggestion more than showing… and it’s also based on autosuggestion – why not? I realized I didn’t want to work on this topic from the point of view of a skeptical outsider; rather, I wanted to feel closer to those who believe. Something very important about this project is that I had many encounters and experiences myself, that affected my work at lot. I met many people who claim to have seen or to have had some kind of contact with Muma Paduri. It is a real belief, not just a myth from the past. I have met other individuals who were supposed to be witches; people who assured me that they have seen dragons in the sky, or vampires. Many people are afraid of certain black magic practices, and they can name very concrete spots where they happen. In this way, the project was like an inner journey for me.
Born in Altea, Spain, in 1979, Joan Alvado is an independent photographer currently based in Barcelona. He focuses on long-term documentary projects around the concept of the unexpected, seeking to break with visual clichés and established stereotypes. His project Cuban Muslims, Tropical Faith earned him the New Fnac Photography Talent Award in Spain in 2016, as well as the Center Choice Awards (USA), and was nominated for the Prize Emergentes Dst by the Encontros da Imagem Festival (Braga, Portugal) and for the Kolga Tbilisi Photo Awards (Georgia). His project School of Shepherds received the Lens Culture Emerging Talent Award in 2018 and was selected for Descubrimientos PhotoEspaña. Find out more about his phototagraphy on his website and his Instagram channel.