Public Gallery 2014

Angus Fraser - Winner

The origins of Santa Muerte - a religion/cult that has been denounced as satanic by the Mexican Catholic Church - can be dated back hundreds of years. It was developed through a syncretism between indigenous Mesoamerican and Spanish Catholic beliefs and practices. Only in the last decade however has it become more predominant in Mexican society, where many commentators have noted its rise with the killing and violence associated with the war between rival drug cartels and the Mexican Government.

For the past three years I have visited Mexico several times and have researched, interviewed and documented the devotees, as well as recorded the shrines and altars they visit. I have made contact with many individuals who have built and manage the shrines, and who by default are now considered to be guardians and spiritual leaders of the faith. They have given me access and permission to photograph not only in their places of worship but also in their private homes and in prisons, where Santa Muerte has a very strong following amongst the Mexican penitentiary system.

My photographic practice is based on researching into the relationship between photography and death, and how photography can interpret and represent death. To understand how another culture can embrace and accept death with such certainty, compared to an accepted Western perspective. During the course of the three years I have been working on this project, I have built strong connections and a level of trust with the main protagonists of Santa Muerte. I believe it is because of this I was accepted and given unlimited access into a world that is considered macabre, illegal and even satanic by the mass media.

I admit that along the way I encountered individuals who lived up to the Santa Muerte stereotype that the US and European media have created. But on the whole the hospitality, kindness and warmth I was shown contradicts all the negative perceptions I had read, seen and heard. I want to tell their side of the story and in part my own.

I believe this project is ideally suited to the photobook format as the primary method to disseminate the work to a wider audience. The many facets of Santa Muerte; shrines; tattoos; prayers; pseudonyms; devotees; representational colours, would be best represented with dynamic and purposeful design in the book format. I have documented a vast array of images, but due to my inexperience of book design and creation I am still unsure of how the final edit should appear - for example I originally shot all images in colour, but have converted some to black and white and I am not entirely confident this conversion works. I know I would benefit immensely from the wealth of experience and professionalism this award would offer me in the form of the photography experts who would help create the book.