November 2 is All Souls’ Day and the night of remembering departed family members at the Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Day of the Dead ritual. Our photography workshop participants were there to share in the experience. On November 1, at 3 p.m., the bells begin to ring signaling the arrival of the dead. The continue to ring for the next twenty-four hours, and at 3 p.m. on November 2, the spirits begin their return to the grave. This is when the villagers accompany them to the cemetery to put them at rest and at peace for another year. The observant sit or stand by grave sites wrapped in candle light, in quiet and reflection.
Each of our photography workshop participants is embedded with a host family for the day and goes with them to the cemetery. They become part of the family rituals. At the cemetery, I saw Augustin Ruiz, a 29-year old friend whose mother passed away at age 70 six months ago from a cerebral hemhorrage. This was a mourning time for him and he was in distress and need of comfort, surrounded by friends and family.
Imagine: 50 or 100 foreign visitors arriving in tour vans and buses, descending on this small village panteon (cemetery), cameras, flash attachments and alcoholic beverages in hand. There is nearly one of them for every indigenous person. They arrive early, when it is still light to get the best photograph. They move quickly, not asking permission, going from grave site to grave site. Click, press the shutter release. Move on to the next subject. They might walk into the chapel speaking loudly, unaware of the prayerful people surrounding them. They might have a beer bottle in hand and smoking a cigarette as they enter this religious site. Behavior totally inappropriate and culturally insensitive. Click, take the quick photo, clear out after an hour or so, time to leave and get back on the bus, move on to the next location with no real contact with anyone local.
I arrived after dark, closer to 7 p.m. I saw none of the above, but it was reported to me in detail by our photography workshop participants who told me they were ashamed and held back because they didn’t want to be lumped in with the disrespectful.
What do you think? Should access be regulated or controlled? What would you say to visitors coming to a different culture? I know the preparation that our organization puts into providing background about cultural sensitivity and respect. What more can be done?
Outside and inside the cemetery, there is also respect for the environment. Baskets for basura (garbage) are prominently placed so that it is easy for people to recycle and contain what is discarded.
And, on the return home, the home altar is a reminder to honor the memory of those we love who are no longer with us. A useful universal lesson.
We are now accepting reservations for 2013 Day of the Dead Photography Expedition. Please send me an email to reserve your space.