On October 31, we arrive in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, the district located about fifteen minutes just outside the city of Oaxaca, in late afternoon well before dark each year that we organize the Day of the Dead Photography Expedition. This is intentional, to experience the cleaning of the grave sites, and the arrangement of candles and flowers by surviving loved ones in the magic light of late afternoon. Before dark, it is quiet, still, with few foreigners present. It is as it should be — serene and reflective.
First, we go to the Panteon Antiguo — the old cemetery which is a couple of blocks from the zocalo. There is still enough light to capture the scene without using a tripod. Our photography group has been taught not to use flash and to be as unobtrusive as possible, asking permission of people to take their photos when we get up close and personal! None of us were using zooms larger than 200mm and most of us were using prime or portrait lenses for more intimate details.
Villagers brought in wheelbarrows filled with cempasuchitl — Day of the Dead marigold flowers, brilliant red cockscomb, tall candles and votives, plus the favored food of loved ones to decorate the graves. There were vases to be filled with water and some sweeping to do.
As dusk descended, with thirty minutes after we arrived, the skies opened and it began to pour. It rained steadily for the next three hours. I found shelter under an ancient arch of the old cemetery chapel which reminded me of being in an archeological site. The chapel’s adobe walls are crumbling and supported with wood timbers. It was built in the 17th century, but it’s foundation dates to the early 1500’s. Today, it is a shell, open to the sky, but a container for grave sites within its walls.
We found a corner cafe that became our meeting place and respite from the rain. After a few beers, we became more adventurous and went in and out of the new cemetery (about five blocks from the old) to get some night shots, well fortified from the night chill. Along about 9:30 p.m. the rain subsided but many of us were slip-sliding through the mud along with the locals who began to appear to clean, decorate, assemble, eat and drink mezcal. (My tripod feet were an inch deep in mud.)
Entire families keep vigil to watch over their loved ones. There were many offerings of refreshment that night, which is what makes the Xoxocotlan cemetery so popular as a tourist destination!
Night photography for me is the most difficult and challenging. Using a flash distorts color and most importantly, disrupts the environment. Flash is just plain invasion in this situation. So we put our cameras on tripods and set up shots depending upon the light variables. There were many! Overhead street lights created a yellow-gold glare. Some of us had cameras that maxed out at 1600 ISO so photos were really dark. Others could get to 6400 ISO and beyond. I tended to either under or over-expose, struggling with the right depth of field and shutter speed. I use Aperture setting almost exclusively, so I was able to manipulate the camera to capture some of the obscure faces in the dark. The children were magnificent! I’m posting my best of night photos here.
It was pitch black outside, but I got close enough to photograph these mariachi musicians who stroll from grave site to grave site, singing laments and collecting tips. They are an essential part of the celebration and experience. Families would ask them to play and sing a favorite tune of their departed loved one.
Just outside the new cemetery there was a street lined with vendors selling all sorts of food, candles, baked goods, flowers, candies, and beverages. There were even an assortment of ten or more alebrijes (carved copal wood, painted figures) vendors from San Martin Tilcajete. The rain put a damper on business, which didn’t pick up until closer to midnight.
During our stroll back to our van, we meandered by this vendor selling cream filled donuts. There were only two left. Guess who got them? And, I got the photo! They were incredibly delicious. I managed to get a couple of bites.
We left Xoxocotlan exactly at midnight, just as it became transformed into a world of costumed revelers, making our way back to the city for an after cemetery hot chocolate and snack. At 2:00 a.m. Bella and I chose to walk back to our hotel, a good six long blocks through the deserted streets of the historic center — or so we thought. Until we came across this Catrina Bride, too beautiful to resist.
I am taking reservations for 2013 Day of the Dead Photography Expedition. We filled up this year and I had to turn people away. Let me know if you want to make your deposit to secure your space for 2013.