Dia de los Muertos, 2011
Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, is celebrated in many Hispanic cultures in the Americas, and dates back prior to the Spanish era, several thousand years into the past. Here in New Mexico, we find our own interpretation of this ancient ritual, what with the state's long legacy of Hispanic culture. Among the celebrations this month was the Albuquerque Marigold Parade and Festival, which threads it way through Albuquerque's Hispanic south valley. I had the good fortune, this past Sunday afternoon, of accompanying a photographer friend down along Isleta Blvd., to document the parade and the people involved.
The Aztecs and other Meso-Americans believed that by honoring one's dead in such celebrations, they would come back to visit them during the month-long ritual. The Spanish, in their Catholic beliefs, attempted to Christianize these ancient beliefs by moving them so as to coincide with All Saint's Day, in early November, which is when it is celebrated yet to this day.
We arrived with the sun setting low in the west, parade-goers decorated in brightly-colored costumes assembling in the parking lot of the sheriff's station: costumed, skeleton-masked, in-drag, leather-clad, low-riding; families, friends, car clubs, biker gangs, scooter clubs, (un)Occupy Albuquerque protestors and social organizations of all ilks; on foot, upon choppered bicycles, modded scooters, antique cars and improvised floats; a most diverse assemblage of folks from all walks of life.
I brought my trusty "old" (by modern standards, vintage 2008) Lumix G1 and two lenses -- the 20mm-f/1.7 prime lens, along with the 14-45mm zoom -- while Kevin brought his recently-acquired fixed-lensed Fuji X100. I began shooting with the zoom lens while the light was bright, mostly at its 28mm-equivalent widest angle, and occasionally zooming in to a 50mm-equivalent angle of view for tighter compositions. When the light began to fade toward dusk, I switched to the 20mm-f/1.7 lens which, at faster ISO settings and wider apertures, permits handheld shooting in the fading light without the need for flash (control of which, on the G1, is lacking).
Meanwhile, Kevin's more advanced X100 sports a larger, more sensitive sensor and better fill-flash control, along with its unique combination optical-and-electronic viewfinder, although lacking an interchangeable lens.
Myself, I've gotten used to shooting my G1 like a fixed-lensed camera, primarily with the 20mm lens, while for Kevin (having been a long-term SLR user) it's a new learning experience having to rely on "zooming with one's feet," getting closer in to the subject matter.
I believe sticking with one lens and one camera is essential to growing as a photographer, while having to move in closer is a great opportunity to engage in a dialog with one's subject matter, an essential step toward growing beyond photography as big-game hunting, instead using it as a tool for documentary story-telling. Photographs are a gift, freely given to us, not some trophy to be hunted down and mounted upon some plaque in our trophy rooms at home. One has to engage the subject, person-to-person; one has to come into close proximity with the essence of another's humanity, close enough to become real people, even if the occasion is merely documenting the setting of another's home or property, devoid of any direct evidence of habitation, only indirectly hinted at -- cultural forensics, urban archeology.
It is interesting how people in public tend to remain, in their minds, private and secular, introverted and self-conscious. Until they put on makeup and costume, that is, at which point they seem to shed their chrysalis of shyness and become more out-going, as if on-stage in some impromptu performance. It is also interesting to observe these same people, once shy and then having shed their cloaks of shyness, yet still hiding their true expressions of emotion behind the painted facade of a skeleton-faced grin. Do they tire of the incessant click-click-click of the photographers? Do they feel like animals on display in some zoo, or do they have more realistic expectations that being part of such a public activity might involve actually being noticed? For the most part, I failed to observe any signs of emotional exhaustion on the part of the participants. They all seemed eager to be noticed, to be appreciated for the work that each put into their own small part of a much larger event. Even the low-riders got into the act, cycling their cars' hydraulic suspensions into pretzel-like contortions, that are better appreciated on video rather than in still photography.
I came to Albuquerque's South Valley on Sunday afternoon as an outsider; I live in the more affluent suburbs of the city's Northeast Heights, and herald from a non-Hispanic background. Yet I walked away, in the fading light of dusk, feeling like a fellow participant; while not necessarily fully accepted by those involved, (political correctness aside, all of us, to a man, employ our sense of visual perception as a means of assessing strangers in our midst) I sensed no overt suspicion. I am also aware that this celebration, in its most succinct essence, is a neighborhood community gathering, one that dates back to a time when neighborhoods were isolated villages whose members shared a common culture and ancestry; today's participants arrived from all corners of the city. Perhaps next year I will dispense with the superficial attire of the urban photographer, paint myself up in skeleton-face, don some zany costume and ride my motorcycle up Isleta Blvd. along with all of the others. Perhaps.
I'd like to close with some thoughts about The Day of the Dead in its contemporary incarnation. It has often been said, by social commentators, that our culture is one fixated on death; that wars (seemingly perpetual, as of late), violent crimes (seemingly unresolvable), domestic abuse (seemingly chronic) and the mainstream television serial crime dramas (and their endlessly novel crimes depicted therein) all seem to be symptomatic of some fundamental malaise, an inner rottenness, a common disease within our contemporary culture. One could argue (and some have) that these traditional celebrations such as Dia de los Muertos also involve an excessive focus on the symbology of death. However, I disagree; the gaiety and exuberance surrounding such celebrations serve as a reminder to us modernists, steeped in our presumption that we will somehow live on forever, that life is short and, at times, bitter-sweet; that all who have come before, and all yet to be born, will all someday die; that death is a part of life, part of the lives of families and villages and communities; and that before we can completely grasp what it means to be fully alive we must first deal with this matter of death that silently stalks us all.
So let us laugh at death, let us mock its folly, let us find, in our excessive exuberance, reason to live. Let us be fully alive on this Day of the Dead.
Post-script: Among those in attendance, I happened across a long-time acquaintance, a photographer from the local newspaper, whom I'd first met, several decades ago, at a local used camera shop. At that time, he was shooting a medium format Yashica 6x7 camera, processing his own film and making prints in the paper's darkroom. Now, of course, he came equipped with a late-model professional Canon DSLR. The times, they have changed.
I returned home late on Sunday evening with about 450 images on my memory card. I spent the better part of the last few days "processing" them from RAW files into JPEGs, and culling out the wheat from the chaff. The end result, what I consider the better parts, I've uploaded to Flickr, where you can view the full set of photos. Just click on the "slideshow" link.
Dia de los Muertos Slideshow.