The Day of The Dead Crowds, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
The streets leading to the town’s main cemetery are crowded with celebrants from mid-day onwards. Graveside festivities continue into the evening hours with a candlelight vigil. Rather than describing the crowds by showing a chaotic mass of people walking down the street, I waited for a group of people to pass into the shadows next to a yellow church and photographed them as abstract silhouettes against that colorful backdrop. I shot numerous images of various people in this setting, until this particular group of people spontaneously arranged themselves within my frame to best express my idea. The man in the large brimmed hat dominates the scene and becomes the focal point, and there is also a range of sizes and genders present – some appearing in defining profile. I see them as the living, on their way to make contact with the dead, yet because of the degree of abstraction, they appear almost as if they were spirits themselves – only shapes, without form or detail. (I liked the electrical wires appearing within the otherwise pristine backdrop – such casual wires are ubiquitous in a Mexican landscape and add local character to the image.)
Flowers for the Spirit, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
The gravesites and family altars of San Miguel are strewn with flowers, primarily large, bright blossoms such as chrysanthemums and marigolds to honor The Day of The Dead. The colorful setting creates a pleasant atmosphere for the celebrants. In spite of the holiday’s fatalism, festive interaction of the living with the dead is an important ritual that salutes the cycle of life. I made this image just outside of a large flower market on the eve of the holiday. I sensed a pensive quality in this expression. She brought the flowers to her nose, smelling the blossoms and thinking, no doubt, of the spirit she believes will be drawn to them. I waited for her face to come close to, but not overlap, the flowers. I wanted to hold that thin line of negative space between them, adding a touch of tension that creates a focal point by pulling the eye to that space.
Expatriate Cemetery, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
With at least 5,000 expatriates living in San Miguel, a special section of the town's cemetery is set aside for burials of foreigners. It is tidy, with gravestones carefully aligned, quite different from the casually arranged, crowded Mexican cemetery that adjoins it. On The Day of The Dead, the Mexican cemetery is blanketed in flowers. Yet with respect and dignity, someone has thoughtfully placed a simple pair of marigold blossoms on this expatriate gravestone. I used my spot meter to expose for the highlights on the brightest edge of the gravestone. The result is an underexposed image that retains all detail in the stone and flowers, but makes the shadowed background and faces of the grave stones as dark as possible. The two stones move diagonally through the image, leaving as much room as possible for the viewer’s imagination to work. The end result is a considerably abstract image, with a touch of incongruity, built on essential human values.
Cemetery on The Day of The Dead, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
Relatives of the dead cover virtually every grave in this vast cemetery with flowers. Graves are lovingly tended, sumptuous picnics and family stories are shared, and cheerful music is played. All because the celebrants believe that the souls of the dead will return to be with them. I deliberately left all those people out of this picture, including only what they chose to leave behind. The angel is the focal point of the image, rising out of the banks of floral tributes and lifting an arm as if in amazement.
Remembering the Dead, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
At the height of the Day of The Dead celebration, hundreds attend a special service for the dead on the grounds of San Miguel's cemetery. This was the most emotional moment I witnessed on The Day of The Dead. While the holiday is generally considered a joyous family celebration, memories of loss are bound to emerge in spite of the festivities. Perhaps that is why this service is held – to provide an emotional outlet for those whose grief will not go away. I was in a photojournalistic mindset when I made his image. I immediately saw the emotional potential of a service for the dead, and positioned myself in a crowd standing well behind the priest. Using a focal length of about 200mm, I shot image after image of these four people, representing full span of life – youth to age and in-between. In this image, I was able to find the fullest range of emotional response.
The Festive Field of Death, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
Visiting a large Mexican cemetery on The Day of The Dead can be an unforgettable festive and sensory experience. Voices raised in songs, some sad, others happy. The sound of Mariachi trumpets, accordions, and guitars. A sea of color floral tributes reaching as far as the eye can see. The unforgettable smell of flowers, incense, and cooking food permeating the air. And, if one is able to believe in such things, the spirits of the dead will surely come to join the party. The image is built around the man, who seems lost among the blossoms of death. He is the focal point in an image crammed with flowers, crosses, fences and tombs. A cloud of rising incense slowly rises from a grave
A Cloud of Incense, The Day of The Dead, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
A pot of burning incense creates clouds of smoke that mysteriously rise from a grave on The Day of the Dead. I moved in to emphasize the roses on this grave – both those in the sun and others in the darker background, where the long stems of other flowers create an arch. Through it all floats scented smoke, creating a screen of abstraction that is as hauntingly beautiful as it is mysterious.
Twilight, The Day of The Dead, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
A late afternoon sun backlights and abstracts an enormous wreath rising above the flowers covering the graves around it. Soon twilight will fall, and thousands of candles will carry the celebration forward into the long night. To visit Mexico on The Day of The Dead is a fascinating and insightful cultural experience. And visiting San Miguel de Allende for this event is a unique and unforgettable travel experience. Photographing it was a challenge – there are so many aspects that needed to be included and somehow defined photographically. Travel photographers face similar issues when shooting any festival, holiday, or celebration. By abstracting this scene, I try to reduce the emphasis on the religious symbolism, and instead stress the commemorative and spiritual aspects of the holiday. It makes an effective closing image, because it leaves so much room for the imagination of the viewer. Ultimately, it is the human imagination that must carry the biggest load on The Day of the Dead, one of the world’s most intensely personal yet public celebrations.