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Rainforest Retreat



Paul Winner uses the Tamron 17-28mm F/2.8 ultra-wide-angle lens to document a spiritual ritual in the Peruvian Amazon.


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By Jenn Gidman
Images by Paul Winner


Three years ago, when he was in graduate school working on a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, Paul Winner stumbled upon a new approach to managing trauma that involved using plant-based chemical substances called entheogens. He heard about the Temple of the Way of Light, a center in the Peruvian Amazon that offers multiday retreats featuring “healers” from the Shipibo tribe. These healers use an ayahuasca brew to offer a physical, emotional, and spiritual purging of sorts for individuals taking part in the intense ritual.

© Paul Winner
17-28mm (17mm), F/2.8, 25 sec., ISO 800
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Paul reached out to the founder, Matthew Watherston, about both participating and documenting one of the retreats. Circumstances at the time, and then the pandemic, prevented Paul from immediately heading to South America, but last August and September, he was finally able to make the journey to the temple, located in a remote part of the Loreto region of Peru.

“When I say remote, I mean remote,” he says. “I had to fly into Lima, then take a flight into Iquitos, which is only accessible by boat or by plane. The temple is a few hours from there. When you’ve been flying over a flat green space for two hours, there’s no question you’re in the heart of something that’s so much bigger than you.”

© Paul Winner
17-28mm (17mm), F/16, 1/10 sec., ISO 50
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With Paul on his expedition into the rainforest was his Tamron 17-28mm F/2.8 Di III RXD ultra-wide-angle zoom lens, which helped him capture everything from panoramic shots of the landscapes and temple structures to the close quarters of the maloca, an Indigenous ancestral building where the ayahuasca ritual was held. “I loved being able to go as wide as I could with that lens, especially inside the maloca, where things could get especially tight,” he says.

© Paul Winner
17-28mm (17mm), F/16, 1/25 sec., ISO 400
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While candle-containing lanterns provided much of the ambient light for his indoor photos, Paul also brought along a battery-powered cordless moonlight, as well as an umbrella and four different warming gels for the portraits inside the maloca. “The warming gels were to emulate candlelight, since the ceremonies were mostly candlelit,” he says. “After that, you’re in the ceremony for up to six hours in the dark.”

Paul participated in a total of six ceremonies over 12 days, rituals replete with icaros—Indigenous Amazonian songs—in which participants imbibe the ayahuasca brew and undergo the healing process the temple is known for. “These healers have worked with plant medicines for decades and guide you through your journey, which can last from four to six hours,” he says. “They’re physically draining—many people end up purging by vomiting, for instance—but also emotionally draining, as the purpose of the ritual is to process past traumas. It’s a kind of therapeutic time-travel. The audible experience is especially intense, because you hear people moaning, crying, laughing, and yes, sometimes vomiting, all while the Shipibo healers are singing to you.”

© Paul Winner
17-28mm (28mm), F/2.8, 1/15 sec., ISO 10000
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A woman named Jessica led an hourlong candlelight yoga session before each one of the ceremonies, and Paul wanted to capture her in action. “Her language around what was happening was so beautiful,” he says. “You’re deepening your connection to yourself prior to the work you're about to do, and really relaxing into this surrendering that’s integral to taking part in the ceremony. The illumination surrounding her, and lighting up the wood spokes of the ceiling, was all from the light of the lanterns placed around the maloca. I had to shoot wide open, at F/2.8, on a tripod, with my ISO cranked up to 1000, to get that shot.”

© Paul Winner
17-28mm (17mm), F/2.8, 1.6 sec., ISO 1000
Click image to view larger

Many of the healers smoke mapacho, the South American name for Nicotiana rustica, a potent variety of tobacco that grows in the rainforest. “It’s very much a part of their spiritual practice to smoke mapacho, so I wanted to ensure I captured a few photos of them doing that as well,” Paul says. A couple of the healers were excited to also sit for a few personal portraits with Paul, which he shot with a separate Tamron prime lens.

© Paul Winner
17-28mm (19mm), F/2.8, 1/15 sec., ISO 8000
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© Paul Winner
85mm, F/2, 1/80 sec., ISO 800
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“The setting helped a lot,” Paul says. “It was dark, we were in the maloca, and I had an umbrella set up, with this nice warm light directed at the healers, who were dressed in their full ceremonial garb. I don’t speak Spanish at all, let alone the many different dialects they were speaking—the villages along the Amazon River all have their own languages. It was helpful to have Matthew there helping to translate my directions, such as when I needed the healers to make direct eye contact with me.”

© Paul Winner
85mm, F/2, 1/60 sec., ISO 800
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By the time his experience had come to a close, Paul had undergone a process of deep healing and captured intimate photos along the way. “It was incredible from start to finish, and life-changing,” he says. “It’s been a springboard for me to a new spiritual awakening and a more intimate connection to both my humanity and humankind globally. I want to add a very heartfelt thank you to Matthew, the healers, and the entire staff at the Temple of the Way of Light for providing such a profoundly impactful and caring environment throughout the two weeks I spent with them.”

To see more of Paul Winner’s work, go to https://thepaulwinner.com or check out his Instagram.






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