Dia de Muertos in Oaxaca

Hundreds marigolds , Museo Textile, Oaxaca

We recently visited Oaxaca in occasion of Dia de Muertos (The Day of Dead).

The trip was actually planned a year in advance. We tried to stay in our favorite hotel for this occasion in the past and could never find a room . Last year, while in Oaxaca, we booked way ahead of time. It was well worth it.

For the occasion the city of Oaxaca de Juarez and the neighboring towns host a week of celebrations. If you want to experience authentic Mexican traditions, it doesn’t get any better than this.

The preparations are as beautiful as the actual celebrations, every street corner offers incredible photographic opportunities. Colorful shrines are built everywhere, adorned with yellow and orange marigolds and displaying food and beverage offerings for the dead. The traditional belief is that the dead arrive on earth after a long journey tired, hungry and thirsty. The offerings on the altar are meant to take care of their needs.

Dia de Muertos, offerings on altar

The festivity used to happen in the beginning of summer during Aztec times and was moved to coincide with all Saints and all Souls by the Spanish catholics. The result is now an example of religious syncretism, where catholic and mesoamerican traditions fuse together.

The night of October 30th we attended a huge performance, staged by young students, just behind the Cathedral of Oaxaca. The show provided many of the subjects for our photos. If you want to get good shots of girls wearing the traditional calavera (skull) face paint, don’t miss this night.

You will able to photograph in late daylight before the show and at night during and after the show.

The photos after dark are probably my favorite. Make sure you bring a fast lens.

I shot mine using a Sony A7II and in most cases a Nikon 85mm 1.8G and a Nikon 50mm 1.8G with a Novoflex adapter. All in manual mode (including manual focus, because of the adapted lenses). The Novoflex adapter, incidentally costs a lot more compared to other adapters, but it’s the only one I tried that didn’t show any flare and reflections issues. The issues are especially evident when you shoot dim lit scenes featuring very bright light sources, like stage or street lights.

Girl painted as Calavera, Dia de Muertos, Oaxaca

The following night we booked a driver who took us to the cemeteries in Xoxocotlan to see the velada. The families gather around the tombstones of departed relatives to pray, light candles and decorate the altars with offerings and flowers, all night long. The spirit is one of festivity, though, really different compared to cemeteries in Europe, where everyone is keeping very quiet. In Mexico is not unusual to have small groups singing and playing guitar and kids playing and running around.

Diad de muertos, Xoxocotlan cemetery

Outside one of the cemetery the town band was playing some incredible funereal music, somber and beautiful.

We spent a few hours walking around and photographing, it was like nothing we had ever seen before. The only thing that made a little uncomfortable was the feeling of intruding in someone else very personal moment in time. Our driver kept on reassuring me that the locals did not absolutely mind having foreigners photographing these incredibly intimate moments. Never the less I never felt completely at ease.

Oaxaca is an incredible place, we’re workmen on organizing a photography workshop over there, hopefully soon.

You might be interested in these articles.

Centro de las Artes de San Agustín, Oaxaca
Monte Alban, Oaxaca

Monte Alban

Hierve El Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Hierve El Agua


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