Crossing the Water

A Photographic Path to the Afro-Cuban Spirit World

Crossing the Water

Book Pages: 280 Illustrations: 157 photographs (incl. 39 in color) Published: December 2007

Art and Visual Culture > Photography, Latin American Studies, Religious Studies

In the summer of 2000, two award-winning photographers, Claire Garoutte and Anneke Wambaugh, were researching Afro-Cuban religious practices in Santiago de Cuba, a city on the southeastern coast of Cuba. A chance encounter led them to the home of Santiago Castañeda Vera, a priest-practitioner of Santería, Palo Monte, and Espiritismo, a Cuban version of nineteenth-century European Spiritism. Out of that initial meeting, a unique collaboration developed. Santiago opened his home and many aspects of his spiritual practice to Garoutte and Wambaugh, who returned to his house many times during the next five years, cameras in hand. The result is Crossing the Water, an extraordinary visual record of Afro-Cuban religious experience.

A book of more than 150 striking photographs in both black and white and color, Crossing the Water includes images of elaborate Santería altars and Palo spirit cauldrons, as well as of Santiago and his religious “family” engaged in ritual practices: the feeding of the spirits, spirit possession, and private and collective healing ceremonies. As the charismatic head of a large religious community, Santiago helps his godchildren and others who consult him to cope with physical illness, emotional crises, contentious relationships, legal problems, and the hardships born of day-to-day survival in contemporary Cuba. He draws on the distinct yet intertwined traditions of Santería, Palo Monte, and Espiritismo to foster healing of both mind and body—the three religions form a coherent theological whole for him.

Santiago eventually became Garoutte’s and Wambaugh’s spiritual godfather, and Crossing the Water is informed by their experiences as initiates of Santería and Palo Monte. Their text provides nuanced, clear explanations of the objects and practices depicted in the images. Describing the powerful intensity of human-spirit interactions, and evoking the sights, smells, sounds, and choreography of ritual practice, Crossing the Water takes readers deep inside the intimate world of Afro-Cuban spirituality.


“[A]n engaging and valuable ethnography in its own right, one that goes surprisingly far in its contribution to the field of Afro-Cuban religious studies. Written in sensitive and unpretentiously clear prose, the authors are astute observers of the social, emotional, and spiritual nuances of Cuban religious life, making of their foray a potential source of rich data for any scholar wishing to unravel the complex relationships between Afro-Cuban cosmology and practice, matter and deity, person and spirit.” — Diana Espirito Santo, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“[A]n extraordinarily rich and detailed ethnographic undertaking combined with a highly personal engagement that is acknowledged and foregrounded throughout. It is this remarkable and beautiful combination of the visual, textual and personal that makes the book very powerful. . . .” — Bridget Bennett, Bulletin of Latin American Research

“[F]rom a visual perspective Crossing the Water introduces one into an illuminating world of Afro-Cuban spiritualism. From a cultural and historical perspective the photographs provide a better understanding to viewers of the power of Afro-Cuban culture and religion and its impact on the people and their beliefs. Overall, Crossing the Water provokes intensity of human-sprit interactions, sights, smells, sounds, and a vivid choreography of ritual practice.”
— Christina Violeta Jones, The Latin Americanist

“The price of this book is astonishing given the production qualities—almost every page has one or more photographs if not devoted to one print, all printed on high-quality paper. This would be a wonderful addition to both private and library collections with an interest in Caribbean religions.” — Mary Ann Clark, Religious Studies Review

“There are many books that combine photographs with descriptive essays focusing on religious communities in Africa or the diaspora, but few of them manage to present such keen insight and understanding of the religious life that they portray as Claire Garoutte and Anneke Wambaugh. Their technical skills combined with the strong relationship they developed with an Afro-Cuban priest have produced a powerful collection of visual images and an illuminating written commentary that make this a unique book.” — Robert M. Baum, Journal of Media and Religion

"Crossing the Water is a beautifully produced extended photographic essay, which takes readers into the home, shrine, spiritual family, ceremonies and worldview of Santiago Castañeda Vera. . . . Crossing the Water is both a timely documentation of Creole culture (at a watershed in Cuban history, with Fidel on his way out) and an exciting experiment in ethnographic research, which can challenge western models and the inevitable march of globalisation and homogeneity." — Simon Lee, Caribbean Review of Books

"[A] colorfully intimate portraiture of religious practice on the part of its authors. . . . [I]t provides, from its emic perspective, a close look at the quotidian practice of Santiago, a true priest of these 'crossed' religions and guide through their liturgies, rites, and arcane practices." — Eugenio Matibag, The Americas

"Photographers Garoutte and Wambaugh demystify and celebrate the Afro-Cuban religions of Santería, Palo Monte and Espiritismo. . . What results is a respectful, vibrant account of Afro-Cuban religions, enhanced by more than 150 vivid photographs." (Starred Review) — Publishers Weekly

”More a visual ethnography than a coffee table book, Crossing the Water's complicated images are striking, but also pregnant with clues to a contextual universe that is impossible to read without such intimate firsthand knowledge. The authors provide this in their essay, alongside songs, quotes and spiritual handwritings of Castañeda, a useful glossary and extensive scholarly footnotes.” — Sylvia Pfeiffenberger, Independent Weekly

Crossing the Water is an amazing book that takes you on a wondrous journey into the world of Santería, Palo Monte, and Espiritismo. Claire Garoutte and Anneke Wambaugh have gone the extra mile to document the religions honestly and with a healthy respect for the participants and their beliefs. This is truly an extraordinary document about a world of Cuban religious faith that has rarely been visited in such detail by outsiders.” — Eli Reed Magnum Photos

Crossing the Water is at once mysterious, encompassing, and illuminating. Most importantly, it is a deeply moving journey in which the various parts equal the whole. We must leave aside our predilections and ideas from what we know to enter this very personal territory. Upon repeated viewings and readings, the depth of this project reveals itself. Through the dedication of Claire Garoutte and Anneke Wambaugh we are allowed a meaningful glimpse of a further world elucidated by the images and writings of two who entered it.” — Robert Lyons, photographer, Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide, Another Africa, and Egyptian Time


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Claire Garoutte is Assistant Professor of Photography at Seattle University. Her work has appeared in exhibits in the United States and abroad. Garoutte began photographing Afro-Cuban religious practices in Cuba in 1994. She is the author and illustrator of Matter of Trust.

Anneke Wambaugh is an award-winning photographer and an independent scholar of African and Afro-Caribbean ritual art who has worked extensively in Cuba and Haiti. She works as a Haitian Creole interpreter in Seattle.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1. I Bow My Head to the Ground: Santería Thrones and Rituals 25

2. Ver Para Creer (Seeing is Believing): The Prendas and Ritual of PaloMonte 67

3. It's My War Now: The Private Sphere of Santiago's Daily Practice 115

4. I Am Not from Here: Espiritismo and the Congo Spirits of the Dead 157

Afterword: ¿Y la Otra? (And the Other One?): The Nature of Our Collaboration 199

Notes 203

Glossary 227

Bibliography 243

Index 249
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4039-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4020-1
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