I'd told myself at the beginning of the year that I wanted to do high production value street portraits at Dia De Los Muertos this year, take an assistant, two lights, no stands, lightweight, quick, portable. I had some lighting in mind that would be easy to run and gun with a key and fill, etc., etc.
Then I got myself up to my ass in alligators while trying to drain the swamp of a basement renovation, and November snuck up on me.
This was my first experience with Dia De Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, festival. I wasn't sure what to expect as far as the experience went, but I waited until the night before to try and find an assistant... so... yeah... it was just me. No lights. Just a Fuji X100s and a D800 with a 24/1.4G mounted. Shoot wide and get close. Not my normal style, but, yanno... I guess you have to mix it up every once in a while. Get out of your comfort zone. No pain no gain. Think outside of the box. Create occasion to use a few more cliches in a blog post.
I got there a little bit after it started at 4PM, knowing that I wanted to get mix light for at least some of the shots, since I was only using ambient light.
I had no idea what to expect going in, which, in all honestly, for taking in the feeling of the festival, going solo was the best way to go. I only spoke to a couple of friends that I ran into, but largely just observed and tried to keep an eye out for good shots.
I didn't end up shooting as much as I'd like. The experience of it was too interesting. If I'd taken an assistant and a light, I'd have been much more active about making photographs. Actively seeking out interesting faces, arranging the scene as I liked it. Doing my normal thing. Find a face, put it into the situation I want, light it, shoot it. Rinse. Repeat. I know doing that, I'd have had my blinders on to a lot going on around me. My process is my focus, my flow. It's the way I shut out distraction.
I've talked to Zack Arias over beers about shooting street. He's really humble about it. He's also really damn good at it. His analogy is that he finds his place, and waits for the face to come along. Total 180 from his commercial / editorial M.O. He talked about how hard it is to shoot good street photography.
And... tonight... I totally resemble that remark. It's hard. I'm comfy in my little world of a perfect bubble of light within which I place a subject with whom I've got time to work, converse, build rapport, etc. Going out into the world to try and find a photo, for my brain, is, well, let's just say there's an analogy about not being able to find a part of your own personal anatomy with two hands, a flashlight, and a map. It's signal overload. Distraction city. Which... is precisely why I wanted to do it tonight even though I couldn't find an assistant.
Picking Dia De Los Muertos though as a proving ground for something new was a bit like handing the keys to a Ferrari to a 16 year old. Totally unprepared. But hey, that's what I love about personal work. Fail all you want. Throw away a lot of shots. Be your own worst critic. Don't ever let anything see the light of day. Heck, don't even talk about it if you don't want to. It's freeing.
The best part about tonight though, was that going in without blinders, with my "ooh shiny" instinct in full effect, aimlessly roaming around, taking it all it, I was able to really feel what the occasion was supposed to feel like.
The Mexican culture does death right. What I mean by that is, this festival was all at once respectful and joyous. Solemn and exciting. Sweet and salty, savory and sour.
The one time, of the whole night, I really wanted to "shoot how it feels, not how it looks," I couldn't find "the" shot to save my life. I've got poorly composed technically imperfect pictures of the whole scene. The most amazingly emotional family out of the whole festival, and I got mediocre shots to show for it. <Get it together, Rogers!> They were singing their souls out. Pouring a new drink with every song. One for each of the loved ones present, and one ceremoniously placed on the altar for the deceased. It was a beautiful thing. There was so much more than I ever managed to get in the frame.
After realizing that I was hopelessly failing getting "the" shot of this particular family, I started to analyze. Need a lower angle to get heads in a clean spot. Need to get closer to isolate them a little more against the background via DoF. Mariachi band is in the way. Then, I quieted my left brain, let my cameras hang loosely around my neck, and just let it all sink in.
As an experience, I was too moved by family heartily singing along with upbeat Spanish songs that I could only imagine the words to. It reminded me of the line from Shawshank Redemption:
“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it."
The rest of my shots were just kind of documenting the event, the "wide to detail" type stuff. Nothing amazing, but the experience itself was the big deal. Next year, I'll have to make a cigar box shrine for my grandparents and take a couple of candles.