Inside the Gaudy World of Romania's Wealthiest Witches
The country's fortune tellers have much fancier houses than you ever will.
This article originally appeared on VICE Romania
Last year, Slovakian photographer Lucia Sekerková travelled to Romania to meet Maria Câmpina, the self-proclaimed queen of the fortune tellers. Locally, fortune tellers are referred to as "witches". Usually of Roma origin, these witches are said to be able to read a person's future in their palm, in grains of wheat or in the stars.
Lucia made friends with Maria and spent time documenting the witches, their houses and their trade – a trade that has been passed down from generation to generation since ancient times. I got in touch with her to find out a bit more about her project.
VICE: Hi Lucia. How did you end up documenting the lives of Romanian witches?
Lucia Sekerková: I've been both fascinated and scared by the occult ever since I was a child. I decided to come to Romania through the Erasmus student exchange programme because I thought the country was quite mysterious and rich in folklore. I was searching the internet for information about the villages, the people and their traditions, when I came across a YouTube video of one of these fortune tellers. I knew right away that I needed to meet them in person.
So, I asked the CouchSurfing community for help and met a local photographer, Cosmin Iftode. He ended up acting as my guide and translator, which was good, since very few of these witches speak English. I couldn't have done it without his help. Cosmin and I are close friends now.
How did you find the witches?
I just looked up their addresses and telephone numbers on the internet and in the papers, but it was pretty hard to convince them to let me take their picture. Some of them asked for money, others didn't. Anyway, most of them were willing to bargain. The prices ranged somewhere between 20 (£14) and 50 euros (£36) per session.
I told them I was taking their pictures for a newspaper in Slovakia. They probably wouldn't have let me do it if I told them the truth: that I was working on my final project. Moreover, telling them I work for a newspaper assured them that I could pay the price they asked.
After days of searching and bargaining, I finally met Maria Campina – the self-proclaimed queen of the witches – and struck a deal with her. In order to take her and her acquaintances' pictures, I had to promise her the newspaper that I was working for would publish a full story about her, as well as give her the front page. This way, I didn't have to pay any money for the photo session. Maria's photo did end up on the front page of SME, a weekly Slovakian newspaper.
How hard was it to interact with these women?
The hardest part was persuading them to be honest. While I was interviewing them, I got the feeling they tended to exaggerate their stories. It was obvious they were trying to make a good impression. Fortune telling is ultimately a business. I wasn't used to dealing with people like that, so the conversation was quite exhausting.
Did you test their fortune-telling abilities?
I did. Part of my project was to see just how different the women's predictions were. And they were quite different – some positive, others negative. All were really short and way too general.
For example, one of the witches told me I was going to get married and have three kids within a year. It's been more than a year since and none of the things she said would happen have actually happened. The strangest part was when a witch came up to me, pulled my hair and told me that someone close to me was going to die. Luckily, they didn't.
The witches' houses are all about flaunting wealth, whether it's golden chairs or flat screen televisions. This is the house of a witch named Amalia, who, at the time, was training her niece in the art of witchcraft.
Do you think the local stereotype of Roma people being witchdoctors help these fortune tellers make money?
In Roma communities, it's usually the men who support their families. Whether they make an honest living or not is an entirely different matter. Fortune telling is an ancient trade – the only one that Roma women are allowed to practice. It's also the only way Roma women gain respect and success within their communities.
Roma girls go to school until they are 18, but they're also taught fortune telling by their mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Each girl has to decide for herself if this trade is morally correct or not, because practicing it often entails taking advantage of their client's naivety.
How do you feel about the fact that this ancient trade is practiced in a modern society?
At first, I was fascinated. I photographed some of the wealthiest and most respected witches in the world. These women have managed to accomplish something incredible: they've built a modern business using ancient rituals originating from their ethnic background. Their customs are exactly the same as a century ago. What's changed is people's perception of them.
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