Vance Gellert

Vance Gellert, Mercado de Brujas

Photographer Vance Gellert has come back from South America with a series of striking photographs of healers and healing, currently on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, in an exhibit entitled Smoke and Mirrors: A Journey to Healing Knowledge.

Gellert used medium- and large-format film cameras to bring out details and vibrant colors, to evoke a spirit of place; photography, he says, captures images infused with layers of meaning and nuance that give the recorded facts a human and emotional connection. His photograph of the Mercado de las Brujas in La Paz, for example, shows an herb market — plants, bones, llama fetuses, packaged remedies — through which visitors must pass to get to the modern pharmacy beyond. The photographs, he says, "were made on my quest to understand ritual and belief systems in medicinal plant usage in Bolivia and Peru. The ones presented are those I've gathered to date that best recreate the psychic and spiritual experiences of my journey."

Vance Gellert, Norma Panduro Navarro

Gellert believes many South American healers straddle the line between art and science, and an important factor in his research was, he said, “to do like art asks, to suspend disbelief, to not exclude any possibility, or any observation, no matter how strange and exotic.” Among the photographs are striking portraits of a number of healers in the Iquitos area — Guillermo Arevalo, Norma Panduro Navarro, Antonio Arevago. Other photographs in the series feature shamans and healers in La Paz and Cochabamba, Bolivia, and plants, stones, and animals used in healing ceremonies. The photographs, he says,

loosely follow my travels, beginning and ending in La Paz, Bolivia, with travels to the lowlands of the Amazon basin and the Andean highlands in between. I encountered a very wide variety of practitioners of plant and traditional medicine, from extensively published professors at the University of Cuzco and university plant researchers in Cochabamba, Bolivia to a funky ayahuasquero in the jungle hills of Bolivia. I spent much time with Carlos Prado, a dedicated medico naturalista who is establishing an international school of natural medicine in Cochabamba. I made sojourns to the Kallawaya medicine men of Curva, Bolivia and attended conference on shamanism and ayahuasca in Iquitos, Peru. Ayahuasca is the potent hallucinogenic potion of the lowlands to which is ascribed many spiritual and diagnostic powers in healing and wellness. An investigation into the plant medicines of South America is incomplete without considering the place of ayahuasca in this milieu.

Vance Gellert, Guillermo Alevero

Gellert has unique qualifications for these photographs. He has a doctorate in pharmacology from the University of Minnesota. He also has an MFA in photography from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and he was cofounder and director of the Minnesota Center for Photography until 2003, when he became a full-time photographer.

Gellert's website is here, and some photographs in the exhibit are in a folder entitled Chamane Indigeno: Ritual and Medicinal Plants in South America. A review is here. If you are going to be in Minneapolis before August 10, check it out.


  1. heya, you do not need to publish my comment, just a quick thing: you mught want to correct the spelling in one of the pictures. The man depicted is Guillermo Arevalo :-)

  2. Edna --

    You are, of course, correct. But the title of the photograph is exactly as Gellert gives it on his website. If that's what the artist calls it, that's what I put down. :-) Thank you for your comment. I am always happy to hear from people. I hope you are enjoying the blog!