I must admit that I’ve been a bit obsessed about this photo project since the moment I first experienced it in Cortona, Italy, in the summer of 2017. This book takes visual storytelling to a new sophisticated level for me (much in the same way that Gregory Halpern’s masterpiece from 2016, ZZYZX, sticks in my mind). And I am reminded of the immense power that photography has to tell imaginary tales — by creating geography, cultures and characters that seem to operate in a parallel universe, governed by a unique but somehow believable dream logic.

Taking his cues from the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s most well-known novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Venezuelan photographer Luis Cobelo has captured photos of real people and places in South America to create his own mythical mindset, Zurumbático. The sequence and flow of the wordless images are seductive from the opening pages, creating a powerfully interconnected cinematic experience that lingers in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed.

First we see an aerial view (through some wisps of clouds) looking down from the heavens on a wildly curving river snaking through a jungle that surrounds a small outpost of civilization. Turn the page to discover a wrinkled, hand-drawn map covered with doodles and notes and a path marked in dotted lines. The map looks discarded on a heap of junk in an old attic; it hints at a treasure hunt… And then a nearly blank page with some of the very few words in the book: “Todo es real hasta que se demuestre lo contrario” which means “Everything is real until proven otherwise.”

The magic spell has been cast on us, and we are about to take a journey that is ripe with psychic imprints, dreams, memories, spirits and ghosts, cause-and-effect, magic, belief, the unseen.

Cobelo told me: “I’ve been thinking about this project—cooking it—for more than 10 years. I’m a big fan of the book One Hundred Years of Solitude—it represents lots of things about Latin America that are true. I grew up in a place that was similar to this place. Things in the Caribbean are very relaxed, and things happen, and you don’t need to ask to know some things. For example, I have friends who believe in witches—it’s very common to believe in these things (even if you don’t believe in these things in general). You can speak with the dead—like ghosts in my room.”

The unspoken connections between the people, places and situations of Zurumbático stir the imagination of the reader and conjure elaborate flights of improbable reasoning. So many of the individual images are powerfully charged with head-scratching mystery, like the old blind tailor, with a tape measure draped over his shoulders and a cross of ashes smeared on his wrinkled forehead. What’s his story?

When I showed this book to the photo editor of a favorite magazine, she looked at every page with a big smile on her face, and at the end she pronounced, “It’s brilliant. And it starts with a birth!” I hadn’t seen that at all, but now I see it every time.

The very short ending statement by the author includes these words: “Zurumbático is a tunnel of feelings, sensations, impressions and especial events, in which I enter and leave as I wish. Immersed in this dimension, I understood and reconfirmed that the unusual, the everyday, the comic, even the tragic, has no explanation, neither asked nor sought. It is what it is.”

—Jim Casper

If you’d like to learn more about the book (and see a video of the exhibition in Cortona, Italy), you can visit its dedicated website.

by Luis Cobelo