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Seeing The Psychotropic, Photographing The Phantasmagoric

I'm sitting in my neighborhood bakery, the Upper Crust in Austin, Texas, trying to read my newspaper and enjoy an oatmeal muffin, but I can't stop staring at the photographs on the wall. A native man, his face painted weirdly, holds a great scowling iguana on his head; a boy lies on palm fronds with a colony of giant silk moth caterpillars ornamenting his neck; small brown hands hold a luminous blue morpho butterfly up to the camera. Put down your Danish rolls, people! How can anyone finish breakfast under the spell of these bizarre tropical photos? Who is this photographer anyway?

Holly Wilmeth lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She's 35, the daughter of a Guatemalan farmer. She took up photojournalism and documentary photography nine years ago. She is drawn to photographing marginalized people. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Economist and Time. The photographs I'm looking at are part of a project called Cuerpos Sagrados ("Sacred Bodies"). The body as a canvas.

"The story started as I was thinking about a documentary piece on ceremonial plants of the world," Wilmeth says in a phone interview. "I started imagining what my visuals would be if I were in one of these ceremonies."

In other words, Wilmeth composed photographs of what she imagined she might see under the influence of psychotropic jungle plants: painted bodies festooned with live objects such as caterpillars, lizards, plants and fish.

Most of the subjects of these startlingly beautiful pictures are friends of hers — Kekchi Maya from eastern Guatemala and Chichimeca from Central Mexico.

"It would take 20 to 25 minutes to paint someone," she says. "I'd finished taking the photo, and they say, 'I have someone else who wants to get painted.' It's like the whole village wanted to get painted. And paid."

I asked her a few more specific questions.

Explain iguana man.

"He lives in Yelapa, Mexico, and carries his pet iguana around with him for the tourists to photograph."

And those creepy caterpillars around the young boy's neck?

"The boy, Chebo, ran to a tree and pulled off the giant worms. He said, 'Let's dip them in water and they won't move.' We both decided to arrange them around his neck since they looked like a necklace. Chebo loved it."

What about the series of children holding huge insects in the foreground?

"I didn't want to show faces, just insects — the beautiful lines of their bodies, and then the insect."

Did anyone feel like this is making fun of them?

"They loved their photographs," Wilmeth says. "They felt really happy, and I felt really happy."

Since she shot this project in 2010, Wilmeth has participated in Santo Daime, a spiritual practice that began in Brazil and is centered around ceremonies in which vision-inducing ayahuasca tea is drunk.

Did the photos get it right?

"Yes," she says with satisfaction. "The way I imagined before I did a ceremony connected to the way I felt during the ceremony."

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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