Knowing when and where to travel to find the most exciting imagery unfold in front of your camera is the first step toward cultural photojournalism. Not just great scenes, but real people doing real things are what we all want to experience and capture. Life and emotion are simply hard to get a handle on, as the outsider, the nosey, camera-wielding intrusion that is so often the bane of locals. No photojournalist wants to be thus labeled, or treated with suspicion and disrespect.
Traveling in Mexico to experience the Días de los Muertos (Days of the Dead), whether in very rural areas or towns and even typical resort areas like Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta, is always unforgettable. My mantra is to get up early and stay out late. Plan ahead by researching times to be where the action is, but be very open to serendipitous information gathered on the spot.
Once in the right place at the right time, which right away puts you in the realm of Nat Geo, then we practice the best of our craft: observation and anticipation of action, acting quietly and quickly, preserving manners but get the shot.
We love San Miguel de Allende, the colonial town in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, because it is so tourist friendly and the old town area retains the flavor and classic buildings.
In spite of the number of ex-pats and the accompanying modernization of shops and restaurants in this popular artists’ destination, you have a very real sense of stepping back in time. There is so much to do and see on every street corner, all you have to do is be out and about with a camera to find yourself in the midst of interesting events. In the graveyards and at performances, everyone is taking pictures. The visiting photojournalist therefore will experience little of the typical problems of access, languages and safety.
Another town well known for traditional celebration fairly near San Miguel is Patzucuaro and the island of Janitzio, in Michoacan state. But the daddy of them all is the extravagance of preparations and events at Tzintzuntzan, just a few miles from Patzcuaro and about 4 hours by bus from San Miguel.
The name in the Purhepecha language means “place of the hummingbirds”. The size and scope of Days of the Dead in this has grown way past imagining. From my first experience in the area about 20 years ago, not only graveyards are decorated. Visitors come from everywhere, travelers and native Mexicans alike. Performances, handcraft arts, traditions, food – and now the added attraction of new reporting and helicopter video. All a part of the new and old melding into something more.
Días de los Muertos is a happy celebration originally, it is said, arising from Aztec culture.
The culture treats death as simply another stage of the soul. At first glimpse, this holiday appears to be similar to Halloween, because it begins at midnight on October 31st and skull and skeleton likenesses appear everywhere. But the similarities end there. This holiday is one of remembrance and reverence; elaborate decorations, music and feasting are laid on to invite those passed on to return in spirit to sample the tastes, scents and songs they enjoyed in life. Graveyard are washed and dressed in vibrant flowers and altars; everyone is in a festival mood. Crowds preparing for the holiday offer amazing opportunity for interesting photojournalism. Nightime vigils are illuminated with thousands of candles and fireworks, along with dances and performances.
The Days of the Dead are November 1st and 2nd, corresponding to the Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. November 1st is the day for children; I’ve heard it called the Día de los Innocentes or Día de los Angelitos – the little innocents or little angels. The main night starts at dusk on the 1st and celebrations go on all night welcoming all the spirits of the departed. Photographers want to arrive early and stay out late. The serious photojournalist will not stand out as obnoxious or intrusive. This is a time on unconditional hospitality.
Other Mexico towns I’ve visited where excellent opportunities for Days of the Dead photojournalism abound are Oaxaca and Acapulco. (Please comment other cities where you may have found good experience.) But this festival is by no means limited to Mexico: check out opportunities in Central America, the Altiplano of South America, Philippines and some other Asian areas, Spain, Greece and northern Africa and of course in the American Southwest of Taos, Santa Fe, Tucson etc.
If you are inspired to plan for next year, do so well in advance for reservations.
Either Patzcuaro (for proximity to Tzintzuntzan) or San Miguel (for more variety of events and arts, but need to make sure you reserve bus service to Tzintzuntzan) Check out possible classes from some of our favorites (not affiliated with Createasphere or ProPhotoCoalition) with the Santa Fe Workshops, Flying Colors Art Workshops or Traditions Mexico.
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