David Saxe Reveals Brazil’s Fascinating Seaside Rituals on “Yemanja”

All images by David Saxe. Used with permission.

If travel photographers strive to capture a sense of place through their work, documentary photographers often seek the most compelling stories unfolding in a certain place, at a certain time. When New Mexico-based David Saxe decided to visit Brazil for the first time, he decided to enroll in a photography workshop held at the colonial city of Salvador, in the state of Bahia. Part of the workshop was a visit to the beach one early morning during the Carnivale, to witness the ceremonies and celebrations dedicated to Yemanja, a powerful goddess in the Afro-Brazilian religious tradition of Candomblé.

From this visit came his set, aptly titled Yemanja, which shows the residents of Salvador dressed in white, saying prayers for good health, happy marriage, and prosperity, lighting up candles, and offering their gifts to the goddess. Wanting to know more about the event he captured and the Yemanja series itself, I got in touch with Saxe to pick his brain in an interview.

Phoblographer: Hello David! Can you tell us something about yourself and what you do?

David Saxe: I was born in Montreal, Canada, 75 years ago. I moved to the US in 1992 and now reside in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I have been taking pictures for over 45 years. I shoot personal documentaries, and all my projects are self-assigned.

Phoblographer: How did you get into photography? How did you discover the kind of photography and imagery you make now?

Saxe: I had learned how to process and print negatives when I was a kid, but I was never really serious about being photographer, until I was in my late 20’s. My older brother had a good friend by the name of John Max, who was a very well-known Canadian photographer. One day, I showed him some photographs that I had taken. He was not very impressed, but he followed that up by inviting me to sit in on a class that he was teaching. For the next 4 years I sat in, listened and showed him endless contact sheets. He never wanted to see prints—all he wanted to see were contact sheets. What he was mainly interested in, was the initial impact that a photo had for him when he first came across it on the contact. That was his starting point. He always told me that a good picture will stand out from the others, make you want to ask questions and explore it deeper. It’s about observation, and when one is truly receptive, we tend to look at  things and see them in a way that is very personal and unique.

Phoblographer: We’d like to know more about your “Yemanja” series. How did you come across this fascinating event/story? How did you prepare for it?

Saxe: I decided to visit Brazil, and since I had never been there before, and knowing very little about the place, I simplified things by enrolling in a photo-workshop. A long time ago, I discovered that many photographers/photojournalists do extensive research and planning in preparation for their projects. They use guides to help gain them access to people or places that they would never discover on their own. They also return to the same place regularly so they get to be familiar with their subjects and locations.

I had come across the work of Ernesto Bazan many years earlier and loved his photography. He was offering a workshop in Salvador, Brazil that seem to have what I was looking for, and so I signed up. I am more of an artistic photographer than a photojournalist so this trip was quite different from previous projects. Yemanja was only a small part of the workshop and my only preparation was to visit the beach where the ceremony was to be held the day before and scout the location very briefly. I really never like to photograph with any expectations in mind. I like stumbling on things, and I believe in  complete spontaneity in my pictures, so extensive preparation is not usually part of my routine.

In any case, the next day, we showed up at 4:00 AM and I was completely overwhelmed by what I saw (I love that!). The crowds, numbering in the thousands, had started to fill the beach—there were people lighting candles, offering prayers, dancing, drinking beer, smoking weed and chanting—and I just walked into it. It’s moments like that where I feel really feel alive.

Phoblographer: Can you tell us about the gear you used for this project? What made you choose these tools in particular?

Saxe: A Leica M9 and a 35mm lens. I like to keep things simple. I just carried an extra battery with me. This is my kit for 90% of my work.

Phoblographer: What did you think was/were the most important aspect/s to capture for this project?

Saxe: I do not search for anything in particular when shooting. It’s really a question of being open and receptive to what’s going on around you. I just look for things that excite me or attract me in some personal way. It’s all very subjective. After arriving, I just wandered around for a short time to get accustomed to what was going on and shoot a few frames to “warm up.” Eventually, you begin to get a feel for the place, as some scenes or  situations began to stand out and attract me more than others. That is really when I started to work. Although the story of Yemanja is the obvious one, I was more interested in those smaller stories—the ones about people relating to their friends, families and surroundings—the ones that exist in single images.

Phoblographer: Do you have any interesting stories and/or encounters while shooting for “Yemanja?”

Saxe: Not really. It was very magical. Every time I turned around there was a different “tableau” of celebrants participating in sacred rituals that were both spiritual and strange. There was very little sound, and the air had a soft mystical quality to it.

Phoblographer: How did the attendees react to you being around photographing while they were observing the Candomblé rituals?

Saxe: They never noticed me. I like working this way because I am “invisible” and my subjects are just being themselves. I never try to be too involved with my subjects or get in their way. After all, you have to respect their rituals and you never want to interfere or change the narrative.

Phoblographer: Which part of this project did you find most challenging? How did you work around it?

Saxe: The crowds—I always find it difficult to photograph in crowds. When I find myself in these situations, I always look for a spot on the edge, away from it all— a place that is isolated but there is still plenty going on. In this case it was the water. The larger crowds congregated up on the beach surrounding the worshippers as they participated in their rituals. Eventually, they would make their way to the water to present their offerings (flowers, candles, wreaths, etc.) to Neptune, God of the Sea. This was the area I chose to work in since it was far less crowded. I would follow the participants to the shore, wading in  after them, into the surf, shoes and all. Few others did that so I was all alone and undisturbed. I was able to photograph these  people without being jostled or having other onlookers crowding my frame and getting in the way.

Phoblographer: What do you consider to be the most crucial element that makes your style truly your own?

Saxe: I am more of an artistic photographer than a photojournalist so I never plan my projects—they just seem to come to me. I photograph very randomly—I never have a plan or project in  mind. I love that element of surprise that occurs when wandering, and then stumbling on something unique and different, something that attracts me in a very unconscious, but personal way. I have found that over time, when looking at my  “contacts”, certain themes begin to stand out, which were not immediately apparent. From then on, its extensive editing. For me it is always a voyage of discovery.

My favorite images have to have that certain “quality” that attracts the viewer and sucks him in—invites him/her to ask questions where there are no answers, to look deeper, to look again and to retain the image in their heads. I want the viewer to feel the photograph, be a part of it, instead of just staring at it. I also like the viewer to interject their own narrative in my photographs. I love it when different people can view the same image and interpret it each in their own subjective way.

Phoblographer: Lastly, what would you advise those who are looking for unique stories to cover for their documentary photography projects?

Saxe: It’s whatever turns you on. Those things which excite you, which attract your attention, which make you want to explore further always make interesting projects. You have to be persistent, curious and interested in what you photograph. Everybody must come to that special place by following their own path. If you are not excited by what you are working on, it’s time to move on.

Visit David Saxe’s website to see more of his impressive documentary photography.