Interview: Captured Spirit – Dr. Dirk Schlottmann

An Interview with Dr. Dirk Schlottmann by Hon Hoang

Spirits and transcendence, these things are metaphysical concepts and exists within spiritual rituals, but how can one seek to capture them within an image? From the emotions to the energy that transpire between shaman and the spirits they are contacting, Dr. Dirk Schlottmann photographs succeed in containing these elements within frames.

Dr. Dirk Schlottmann, an Ethnologist, Visual Anthropologist and Photographer from Berlin, Germany, captures these enigmatic rituals with his energy filled photographs.

Why did you decide on photography as a medium to tell your stories?

At the beginning of my field research on Korean Shamanism, I documented some rituals with a film camera. It quickly became clear that photography is more appealing and fun for me. As a result, I have increasingly focused on photography. My encounters with Korean photographers then influenced me to decisively search for a visual language and for an appropriate form of representation of Korean shamanism.

Can you please tell me a bit about the academic degrees you have and how they relate to your photography?

I received my PhD. at the renowned Goethe University Frankfurt am Main in Germany. My thesis is about “Korean shamanism in the New Millennium”. In terms of content, I have on the one hand dealt with the various national variations of Korean shamanic traditions and on the other hand investigated the interaction of economic crisis and indigenous religion. My doctoral thesis on Korean shamanism is, in German-speaking countries, regarded as a standard work on modern Korean Shamanism.

As an ethnologist, the camera is part of the working tool and was therefore always present. Besides, visual anthropology was already very important for my work and so I took every opportunity to photograph shaman rituals. At that time, I was still working with slide films and so my field research budget was quickly used up. Since my research was supported by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) for 2 years, I was fortunately able to continue my photography.

During this time, my attention has been drawn to the North Korean Hwanghaedo tradition. This ecstatic and wild shaman tradition fascinated me. But the unbridled expression of spirituality seemed to be very unpleasant for many Koreans. Korean photographers and scientists were primarily interested in the issue of “shamanism and national identity” or researched/photographed classical subjects such as music, myth, performance, clothing, etc. The topic “altered states of consciousness” in the form of trance, ecstasy and incorporation of spiritual entities, for me the center of shamanic religious practice, was and is largely ignored.

After my doctorate, when I had the opportunity to come back to Korea and work as a visiting professor at a university in South Korea, I saw the opportunity to start a new visual anthropological field research project and to focus on the ritual practice of the Hwanghaedo tradition. This turned into a long-term project, which I dedicated myself to as a scientist and photographer until today.

How has the study of Eastern spirituality affected your photographic work? Does this manifest in your photography in anyway?

The study of Asian spirituality and the preoccupation with East Asian religions and world views probably influenced my photography only from a motivic and thematic point of view. For example, only if you know the symbolism of certain items or objects or the functions of some Gods in the extensive, shamanic pantheon, can you construct visual chains of associations and establish connections. But these are primarily intellectual aspects of photography, which in turn are only appreciated by recipients who are already very well versed in the subjects.

Much more important for my photographic development was the discovery of East Asian aesthetics, which was the result of meeting Korean photographers and artists. I was not aware of the difference in perception and how much cultural identity influences our work. I mean that in either a positive and a negative sense. Visiting traditional concerts where I learned to love the sound of the haegum and the sound of the kayagum, Korean films that touched me because of their emotionality or the colorful, wonderful architecture of Korean temples are impressions that have shaped my ideas of Korean culture.

My first encounter with the fabulous and famous photographer Kim Soo Nam was a milestone for me. Kim Soo Nam invited me home and showed me his work from several decades of photographing religious rituals in Asia and Korea. I was impressed by his diversity, style and dedication to his subject. When I left his house that night, I had learned a lot about Korean photography and Korean shamanism. I bought all his books and spent nights studying his photographs.

However, after a while I noticed that I was not the only admirer of Kim Soo Nam. Obviously, his photography has shaped and continues to shape generations of Korean photographers whose only goal seems to be to imitate Kim Soo Nam’s images. I noticed how clearly concepts of aesthetics in Korea are framed and defined. The longer I lived in Korea, the more often I had the feeling that I had already seen an exhibition. After a while photographs of Korean shamanism and Korean shaman rituals (gut) seemed to me like “trophy pictures”, like the infusion of a tea bag again and again.

I didn’t want to work like this and so I started looking for my own project and found it in the spirituality of shaman rituals that was ignored by Koreans. Spirit contact (접신) and the idea of incorporation fascinated me. The resulting altered states of consciousness became the center of my visual anthropological work. In this respect, my photography has developed from the contradiction of fascination and demarcation to Korean aesthetics.

What are some similarities and differences in spiritual rituals you’ve observed from one country to another?

Rituals vary greatly from place to place. I think that there is already a wide range of ritual practices within Korea. If you compare a Namhean byeolsingut with a Hwanghaedo jinjinogigut, there is, at first glance, little in common. This naturally intensifies when you leave Korea and look at the rituals of spirit mediums in Thailand or Vietnam. The pantheon, the representation of the gods, the notions of how incorporated gods and spirits act, the music, the altar decoration and the symbols are manifold.

In Vietnam, the gods seemed to be comparable to the pantheon of North Korean Hwanghaedo shamans, but only some few hundred kilometers away in Thailand spiritual rituals are already strongly influenced by Hindu beliefs that are further interwoven with indigenous beliefs. It is very difficult to follow such ritual in detail, because this requires a great deal of knowledge of this particular ethnic group and its culture. So as scientist, you quickly reach your limits.

As a photographer, I drift along and enjoy the flow of the ceremony.
Under visual anthropological aspects I was always overwhelmed by Indian spiritual festivals. They are especially impressive, often bizarre for the observer and quite exotic. The biggest spiritual festival of the world, the Maha Kumbh Mela, is truly indescribable. An absolute explosion of the senses. The Thaipusam Festival in Kuala Lumpur, a festival celebrated by the Tamil communit, is unforgettable for me too. It was really wild and ecstatic. I also visited and photographed the lesser known Theyyam rituals in South India several times. The choice for this tradition was partly due to the fact that Gods incorporate themselves into Theyyam-performers. I thought that a comparison with the Hwanghaedo shamans would be inspiring. However, the difference is too great from a historical and cultural point of view. A comparison would therefore have to be detached from the form of the ritual and would have to concentrate on the contents.

The similarity of spiritual rituals is based on the content. If you look at the content of ceremonies and rituals, it becomes clear that it is always about the same questions. It is about understanding or influencing the inexplicable, the things that cannot be understood rationally. It is the deeply human desire to find an answer to suffering.

Can you please tell us a bit about Korean Shamanism and your work regarding it?

Korean shamanism is so diverse and exists in so many variations that it is difficult to “briefly tell you a bit about it”.

At the beginning of my research, I travelled thousands of kilometers around the country to experience and photograph gut. Whenever I thought that I have seen almost everything, I was wrong, because there were always places, rituals and ceremonies that I hadn’t visited before. That hasn’t changed much so far. It seems to me to be an endless topic that is difficult to grasp in its complexity and its local variations.

In this respect, concentrating on one tradition was an important decision because I was able to deepen my focus on the topic over a number of years, which has led to progress in my research. Concentrating on the Hwanghaedo tradition has also created a closer bond with shaman groups and individual shamans and created an intimacy that is reflected in my photographs.

The aim of my scientific research is to document Korean shamanism in modernity, both in terms of preserving traditional elements and describing recent changes. I see it as a contribution to the research complex “Asian Spirituality” and “Ritual Research”. The visual anthropological work is the search for a new visual language (visual-anthropological aesthetics of religion) that moves between art and documentation, while doing justice to both aspects.

How do Korean shamans perceive your images?

There are quite a few different reactions. Some shamans love my photos and invite me frequently to their rituals. I’m delighted, of course. But I also had cases where I showed some prints and the shaman only said: They are all blurred. They are very disappointed by my pictures and never get back to me. I comfort myself with the knowledge that my pictures are a matter of taste. And it’s hard to argue about taste.

When documenting rituals, what is the photographic process like?

As a photographer, I am very active and I want to be as close as possible to the action. I participate in the ritual literally from the first to the last moment. Every moment is important to me. Of course, I’m waiting for the ecstatic moments, for scenes that are extraordinarily wild and expressive. But Korean shamanic rituals are so varied, colorful and expressive that a mysterious picture can be hidden in every gesture, no matter how small. In intensive phases of the rituals, I experience trance-like states in which I forget time and completely dissolve into the process of photographing. For me, these are particularly beautiful moments of my work, which are usually crowned with great photos.

Has your photography and presence ever affected a ritual? If yes, how did you come to resolve this?

My presence is perceived by all of those involved and the action of photographing the ritual undoubtedly influences the ritual itself. From a scientific point of view, I must of course take this into account. In my publications on Korean shamanism, I give a lot of space for the views, ideas and thoughts of shamans in the form of interviews or personal stories. I allow contradictions and try to be very conscientious in the translations that are compiled together with my wife Jung-a Jung, who is present at all the rituals.

As a photographer, I rely on the factor of “time”. I take my time, get to know the shamans, come very often to gut (굿) and explain my visual ideas. This is received differently. Some shamans don’t want me to be at their rituals again and again. It will then be difficult to take virtuous pictures. Other shaman groups are very communicative and are happy about my presence. I can then take very intimate photos over the course of months (years) without disturbing the ritual activities too much.

If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

I always thought about whether science, art and photography do not exclude or even hinder each other in my work. Nowadays these thoughts are meaningless and no longer relevant to me. You can photograph artfully and still be a good scientist. This is ultimately not a contradiction but a gift.

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Photography has a lot to do with technology (whoever is denying this has no idea…) but above all photography is passion and expression. What others think about your topic matter is of no importance. Do what you want.

Photos Courtesy of Dr. Dirk Schlottmann


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