All photos by Denis Vejas. Used with Creative Commons permission.
A compelling documentary photography project rarely comes easy. More often than not, a story unfolds out of tips from locals, chasing leads, and keeping an eye out for stories that are unique, untold, and unexpected. These are just some of the lessons that we can learn from an interesting work of Lithuanian documentary photographer Denis Vejas, who spent one winter in Kazakhstan in 2011 to 2012 to document life for its last Sufi dervish shaman.
According to Vejas, he met Bifatima Dualetova in September 2011 during his travel across Central Asia in his van. He was staying with locals in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, when he learned about a shaman woman who lived along the border with Kyrgyzstan. He only intended a short visit as he was rushing to head south, to get to warmer places by winter. However, it seemed like life had something else planned for him. With his van constantly breaking down and the weather quickly turning unsuitable for travel, he decided to visit Bifatima again. He ended up staying with her for over two months and documented the experience.
Vejas was generous and meticulous in providing details about his time with Bifatima Dualetova and what he learned about her. He described her as a direct descendant of an influential Sufi lineage, which made her the last dervish of Kazakhstan. She is also better known as Apa, which means “grandmother in Kazakh. According to Vejas, she employs healing methods that use both ancient pagan beliefs and Islamic teachings. She began having prophetic visions at just eleven years old. Eventually received guidance from the spirits to the “sacred hill” in Ungurtas, a small village situated on the border with Kyrgyzstan. This spot, she said, is the center of the Earth’s energy, and where she began healing using the blood of sacrificial sheep and goats.
Based on all these details and stories, we can see why Vejas saw Apa as such an interesting personality to document — from her daily life to the macabre healing rituals she conducts. This body of work is also a testament to the difference that a long-term project makes when it comes to documentary photography. Staying for over two months allowed Vejas to take his time to interact with the locals and their culture, integrating into the community long enough for them to be comfortable around him. This level of trust opens up a lot of relaxed shooting opportunities that enable photographers to capture genuine moments — something that never goes missing in outstanding documentary photography.
Visit Denis Vejas’ Behance portfolio to learn more about his interesting winter experience in Kazakhstan and see the rest of his work.