Now that winter is fast approaching, I find myself dreamily backtracking to a special trip I took earlier this year. With eyes having scrolled over the ad/write-up and spotting these key words – Mexico, Semana Santa, photography workshop, group trip, one remaining spot – I decided in mere seconds to sign up. Stars were in alignment for me. Designed for intermediate/advanced levels, the photographic mission involved shooting the religious processionals and festivities of Easter Holy week in three very beautiful cities: Puebla, Taxco, and Queretaro.
Logistics were elaborately organized by our instructor, who was familiar with the sites. Seeing as we’d be lugging around camera & digital equipment, the motto took on a ‘Pack less, not more’ motif. A member of the group unfortunately opened a can of worms by mentioning she was cutting her stay short due to the supposed heightened risk factor of Mexico. True, there had been an increase of crime there, especially in the US-Mexico border area, resorts and the state of Chiapas, although nowhere near the towns we planned to visit. In any case, we would be taking precautions to avert pickpockets, credit card skimming and wandering alone, yet little did we know of the swine flu epidemic looming on the horizon…
I met my travel companions at the concrete benches outside the customs’ exit in the international arrival area of Mexico City airport’s Terminal 2. It was not difficult to spot the group: gringos with cameras. After exchanging pleasantries, we piled into a private van and a designated driver took us two hours southeast to Puebla, a town with so many mansions, colonial streets and buildings, churches, and convents that it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That evening, already warmed up to each other and one’s quirks, we enjoyed a welcome dinner at the restaurant where the movie ‘Frida’ was filmed.
We marvelled at the abundance of freshly squeezed juice and how cheap it and everything else was compared to the ‘same’ in the US. A plate laden with fruit, granola/nuts, honey and yogurt became my staple breakfast for the week. Our lovely hotel was authentic to the area and located close to the charming ‘zocalo’ (town square). Over the next few days, we aimed for early morning shoots, and explored and photographed the artistic and historic districts, stopping to behold people young and old who were faithfully crafting intricate palm weavings for the processions. We ventured to the nearby town of Cholula where several Palm Sunday events occur and visited the Great Pyramid which, frankly, looks like a huge hill crowned with a church but is in fact, believe it or not, larger in volume than those in Egypt.
After perusing the goods at Puebla’s Mercado de Artesanías, which Judith* proceeded to practically clean out (she was by far the biggest shopper of the group), we travelled on to Taxco, the legendary Silver City on the road from Mexico City to Acapulco. Cha Ching! The mining town, renowned for its picturesque hillside colonial-era charm and silver shops, boasting of white Volkswagen bug taxis and remarkably expansive views, is totally transformed by this unique celebration (see pics). During the days, we went into churches and surrounding neighbourhoods to observe preparations for the processions and photograph the people and the beautiful folk art-inspired Christ figures that were lovingly cleaned and hoisted onto floats to be used in the evening. Each nightly processional was poignant: winding through the people-lined cobblestoned streets, masked and barefooted women and men, often chained at the ankles, respectively carried candles and bore crosses or 100lb bundles of thorny branches on their shoulders and ropes to flagellate themselves.
In general, we found the Mexican people to be friendly and welcoming, their openness and kindness radiating through us creatively. Interactions with two particularly vivacious individuals in Taxco – a spirited, drunken man and his concerned older sister who lived down the street – led to fruitful shooting opportunities for my colleague and I. Because we could communicate easily in Spanish, they felt at ease and, eager to share, invited us into their homes, as curious about us as we were about them. It was surreal, this glimpse into their private lives, and the two of us hungrily shooting and muttering our great luck to ourselves.
Like with all good trips, a climactic incident occurred on the last night of our stay in Taxco. I was unwinding with a colleague in the lively ‘zocalo’, when suddenly swarms of people mobilized quickly in all directions, many fleeing the scene, tears streaming down children’s faces. We stood up immediately and pressed our backs up against the church gates behind us, not knowing what to do, where to go, or even what we needed to protect ourselves from: earthquake? shooting outbreak? bulls on the loose? Ultimately, we made it back to our hotel that had been bolted shut by the management, terrified by intruders. Only later did we learn that the commotion had started as a result of a cross striking an electrical wire thus setting off sparks. The reason for the mad panic was that, a few weeks earlier, armed gunmen raided the same plaza, opening fire outside the Santa Prisca church, seizing someone and wounding three bystanders in the process, and the clash was still fresh in people’s minds.
In stark contrast to the tension of the previous night, we attended the colourful and hauntingly silent Good Friday march in Queretaro, the last stop of the trip. Having now had two lifetimes worth of processions, cameras down, we splurged on a final dinner all together in the lively historic downtown. We’d bonded, for sure, during this unique week but soon it was time to go our own way. In the spirit of collegiality, throughout the workshop we’d shared techniques and tips and held valuable photo critiques, encouraging each other’s individual expression, and although we shot much of the same events, it was amazing to see how different people see different things. It was one of those magical experiences in my life. While the other students left to the airport to return to the US, I stayed on in Mexico City figuring ‘hey, I’m already here and there’s no way I’m going to miss visiting the capital!’