This story appears in the July 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.
A Mystical Coat and Hat Lynn Johnson faced a daunting task: make photos that embody the cultures of little-known or vanishing languages. In some cases she began with a certain word or phrase; other times she relied on instinct to find a captivating image.
In the Republic of Tuva, in Russia, Johnson visited a center where shamans counsel suffering souls. “People unburden their hearts and minds of things they feel are sabotaging their lives,” she says. She saw this shaman in her ceremonial headdress and coat (above), adorned with objects believed to ward off evil: a copper disk, braided ribbons, wild boar tusks. The scene evokes the Tuvan word eeren, meaning protector spirit. —Luna Shyr
Behind the Lens
Q: How do the coat and headdress tie in with the spiritual beliefs of the Tuvans?
A: Every object on the shaman coat is local or symbolizes something local, and the shamans wear their coat and headdress when they perform ceremonies. The Tuvan people are very tied to the land and the wind—to all things that are natural. They believe that mountains, rivers, the world are imbued with spirits, so you have to live in concert with these spirits, and the Tuvan language reflects that. You can call it superstition, but it’s really their worldview.
Q: Why do the people of Tuva go to shaman centers?
A: If you had a broken heart, you would ask for [one] person. If you had financial problems, you would ask for another. What seemed most interesting to me was how everyday the visits were, like going to the dentist or doctor.
The shamans had offices, and if they weren’t performing a ceremony, they’d usually be at their desk, maybe on the phone, doing everyday stuff. On the walls they’d hang their coats and other sacred objects.
Their coats aren’t just a source of power, inspiration, and identity. They’re also protection, because of the individual totems sewn into them. Because the shamans were around people who were sick or needed help all the time, they’d wear the coats and a copper or gold disk to protect themselves.