Day of the Dead Photo Tour Workshop - Mexico

I took part in Luminous Journeys Day of the Dead photo tour in Oaxaca, México 2022. This exposed me to the wonderful Mexican culture in many ways, but I especially enjoyed being welcomed into the homes of many wonderful people. These are opportunities you just never get if you do this on your own. Not only did I take some amazing photos, I captured some amazing moments shared by not just our group, but the families we were so lucky to meet”. – Jemma Hilliard, Australia 

Sina

Mexico’s Day of the Dead - Día de Muertos – is a vibrant feast for the senses, and most colorfully held in legendary Oaxaca, in gorgeous southern Mexico. (Please note this area is quite safe for travelers).

Tour designer and leader Sina Falker brings you unmatched inside access, secures special permitting, and takes you off the beaten path for photo ops the competition doesn't offer, or even know about! She really puts her heart and soul into making sure you have the best experience possible.

The unique celebrations, rites & rituals you will see make for a variety of impact image making opportunities.  Symbolic meaning is infused in everything, from bones & skeletons to flowers & butterflies, water, salt, candles & the bread of the dead! The more you know the better the story your images will tell. See “Getting Cultural" at the bottom of the page for more. But not yet!

 

The Día de Muertos is indeed a spirited time, but it is certainly not Halloween. The celebrations started millennia ago with Mexico’s first great civilization, the Olmec, and was carried on by the Toltec, Aztec, Zapotec, Mayan, and others. There was no sanctioned mourning in these cultures, as they considered it disrespectful and even detrimental to the dead as they transition to the celestial realms. Once a year, those loved ones who have departed are invited back, lured with positive rites, rituals, and festivities. During colonial times, the Día de Muertos began taking place during All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, slowly morphing into a mix of  pre-Columbian and Catholic expression. At its heart though, it  remains a  grand recognition of  Mexico’s indigenous cultures. In 2008, Día de Muertos was named to UNESCO’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” list, which recognizes living expressions of ancient cultural traditions.

 

Your photography adventure begins and ends in Oaxaca, and takes you inside the Day of the Dead season like no other. Like most costumed festivals, the stars are those in costume, so naturally there will be plenty of portrait making, including environmental. You will have access to the various preparations, private photo shoots with costumed Catrina, unique processions and competitions, indigenous markets, Zapotec family homes and altars, and a lot more.

 

As mentioned above, our Day of the Dead photo tour is designed and led by Mexico expert and 2019 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year finalist, Sina Falker. Sina puts a tremendous amount of time and effort into her workshops, always aiming to make your experience with her both culturally enriching and photographically rewarding. And a lot of fun to boot! Ven y celebra Dia de Muertos!

 

To get some personal insight into how Sina works in the field, please check out this great article on Photography Life. 

Day of the Dead Photo Tour Highlights

Behind the Scenes - Costumes & Preparations

Private Costumed Catrina Shoot

Día de Muertos Festival Oct 31

 

Special Day of the Dead Fest - Nov 3

Workshop w/ Light-Master Fernando Cruz

Procession of the Chinas Oaxaquenas!

Parade of the Catrinas!

The Workshop of "The Hands that See"

 

Night of the Dead Cemetary Celebrations

Colorful Indigenous Markets

Traditional Oaxaca Mezcal Production

Zapotec Villages & Ancient Handicrafts

Itinerary Brief

Day of the Dead Photo Tour Workshop

Day 1 – Oaxaca Arrival - Bienvenido a MÉXICO!

If you plan to arrive a day early it's best to waste no time booking your accommodation. We do have extra rooms booked at our Day 1 hotel that are available on a first come, first served basis.  Note that for most of you who will be arriving on Day 1, it's only a short drive to the hotel. Orientation, slideshow, and Q&A with Sina starts at 4 pm.  Your special Oaxacan Welcome Dinner follows in a fantastic, traditional restaurant.  Be careful not to imbibe  too much world famous Oaxaca mezcal though! We have a big day planned for tomorrow that starts fairly early in the morning.


Day 2 – Oaxaca Southern – Hands that See, Sea of Flowers

Today we head south to the workshop, "Manos que ven", or "hands that see", of the blind artist José Antonio. He is internationally known for his lifesize clay sculptures of Zapotec women, mermaids, & more. It's a unique & impressive experience to observe & photograph him at work.  His village is also known for its red & orange Flowers of the Dead, called, Cempasúchil. Mexican photographer & master of lighting, Fernando Cruz, will join us in these fields, along w/  Catrina  women in traditional costumes. He will guide us in creating powerful portraits w/ his lighting. We will also shoot with natural light.

Gorgeous blue lagoon inside a cave in the Yucatan
Day 3 – The Tradition of Mezcal Meets the Catrinas of the Panteon   

All tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas. While modern tequila distilleries use modern methods with only blue agave, the Oaxacans still employ traditional methods and use any of 30 different varieties of agave. This process  includes harvesting, steaming agave hearts, earthen ovens, hemp, scorpions & Gusano worms! This makes for quite an interesting documentary shoot where creative angles can bring your narrative to life. Assisting us again today will be Fernando Cruz and his lighting arrangements for more formal portraits. Late afternoon takes us back into the dead motif, at no better a place than a cemetery called the Panteon. Meeting us there will again be fabulously costumed Catrinas, along with Oaxacan women in their indigenous attire. As the sun vanishes and blue hour joins candlelight, the photography gets very intriguing indeed.

Day 4 - Oaxaca - Chefs, Bakers & Catrinas Street Dancing!     

This morning we take our improving culture-in-action skills to a different Zapotec village, where they specialize in Viviana candle making. These extraordinary candles are created only for Day of the Dead celebrations. The artistry involved is like nothing you have seen before. Then meet the master chef Delia, who will make a variety of tasty dishes in the  traditional Zapotec style. Photograph the fun & then enjoy the delicacies with Delia! Later we visit Sonia at her Zapotec "panadería".  She will demonstrate the unique ancient art of baking "Pan de Muerto".  This evening we return to  Oaxaca centro, where the festivities are heating up. Mexicans pose in elaborate Catrina costumes, play music and dance through the streets - an opportunity for night street photography "par excellence!"

Day 5 – Oaxaca & Environs - Colorful Village Market, Parade of the Catrinas!

The main focus of the morning will be the colorful and fascinating market life, including breads of dead chocolate style! After lunch (and chocolate:) will be free time to relax or otherwise do as you please, lounge at the hotel, process images, have image review with Sina, or explore the center of Oaxaca. The two colonial districts of Jalatlaco and Xochimilco boast house facades with remarkable detail in the style of Día de Muertos. In the evening is a very special event, the marvelously photogenic Parade of the Catrina's.  For weeks the ladies have worked on their extremely detailed costumes to awe the people and inspire the photographers!


Day 6 – Oaxaca - Editing Workshop, The Night of the Dead! 

October 31st. Big Night ahead! This morning is the always fun and adorable children in costume parade. Later we will have special access to a Oaxacan family home, where they are clad in Day of the Dead formal wear! The elaborate altar sets the scene for environmental portraiture, and/or candids. Next we hit the cemetery of an indigenous village, where Mariachis serenade the dead, who presumably sing & dance along. At the stroke of midnight the most ancient Oaxacan ceremony of Día de Muertos takes place. This is where families receive their ancestors from the afterlife and take them home. Is this is the time to try some slow shutter, ghostly image making?


Day 7 - Oaxaca  - Free Time & the Procession of the Chinas Oaxaquenas!

Easy morning! Sleep in, take a late breakfast and relax or do some editing.  We'll lunch and take a casual early afternoon stroll & shop in the colonial center of town.   The fun and opportunities continue as the Chinas Oaxaqueñas will dance through the streets of Oaxaca. Then it’s time for the action on the Plaza de la Danza. This is truly exciting and challenging photography, with the potential of capturing an iconic Día de Muertos image playing out right in front of you.  Who wants to celebrate with a margarita before your dinner fantasico?

chichen-itza-mexico-photo-tour-workshop_early-morning
Day 8 – Oaxaca - Day of the Dead 2.0 - Zapotec Style             

Today we are welcomed back to the Zapotec village to visit the elders of the community in their homes. The deceased are not received here until 3:00 pm on November 2nd. The altars have been prepared according to ancient tradition, providing us with unique photo opportunities in this reverentially joyous atmosphere. In the northern Oaxaca evening, we visit the most elaborately decorated cemetery in the region. Here, portraits of ancestors, Catrinas and other motifs are created from flower heads and fine colored powders. The celebrations continue into the night, w/ offerings that include the finest Mezcals on earth!

Day 9 – Oaxaca & Environs - Day of the Dead Finale, Farewell Dinner                Lightroom and photoshop help & instruction for those interested this morning. After the eventful last days, this morning is an opportunity to relax or do some last chance shopping. After lunch we make our way to the village of Cempasúchil, the original source of the Flowers of the Dead.  Since the inhabitants are busy selling the flowers until the Day of the Dead, they celebrate here on November 3rd. The graves of their ancestors stand above the rest with their very artful flower decorations. The competition is stiff as only the top 3 most beautiful are crowned with prizes. After our return to Oaxaca we will have our Farewell Dinner together, where we will toast once again with a Mezcal to the wonderful experiences of these very special festivities.


Day 10 – Hasta Oaxaca – Hasta Luego!    

Alas, our photo tour adventure during the iconic days and nights of Día de Muertos comes to a close. With your new and unique portfolio in hand, you are free to spend a few more days in beautiful Oaxaca to relax, or hit the sky for the journey home. One thing is certain - you will never forget this time and place!

Note: Approximately 100 days prior to photo tour start date, you will receive a 30+ page Day of the Dead photo tour pdf with full details, inc. visas, hotels, flights, equipment, etc. Also please note that small changes in the tour or sequencing of the photo shoots may occur. Discovering new, unplanned things in such a diverse country with its lively inhabitants is also part of the experience.

 

What’s Included in the Price of Your Day of the Dead Photo Tour?

Included:

Pro Photographer & Instructor – Speaks fluent                        English,  Spanish & German

  Pro lighting workshop w/ Fernando Cruz

  Local English speaking guide

  4 star hotel accommodation

All high quality meals, Day 1 dinner to Day 11                         breakfast 

 All tour ground transport, inc. airport pickup and                 dropoff

  Local model & entrance fees

Excluded:

 International flights to and from Mexico

  Insurance (Trip cancellation, medical, etc.)

 Medical expenses

 Other personal expenses

 Tips, including tour leader  

 Drinks at meals other than water

 Any OYO excursions

Getting Cultural

More Knowledge – Better Pictures

Catrina im Blumenfeld 1 - Mexiko

The Lady of Death

The famous skeleton lady La Catrina is also symbolic of the Day of the Dead. She embodies death as a phenomenon that everyone will face at some point. The first mention of the Lady of Death in Mexico goes back to the Aztec Empire, to the deity Mictecacihuatl. She is the goddess of Mitclan, the underworld. Mictecacihuatl watched over the bones of the deceased and was responsible for the Festival of the Dead.

The figure of Catrina, as it is still known today in a slightly different form, is based on an engraving by the Mexican graphic artist and illustrator José Guadalupe Posada from around 1910 to 1913. The image shows the head of a female skeleton, adorned with a hat like those worn by the European upper class at the time. The artist thus created an ironic representation of the pre-revolutionary Mexican upper class, which copied the style of the European high nobility. The work was called "La Calavera Garbancera" at the time.

Especially during the Revolution, the depiction of Calavera Catrina became popular and entered Mexican culture. Artists like Diego Rivera also picked up on this trend and made the skeleton lady famous worldwide.

Altar de Muertos

At the heart of this festive time is the “Altar de Muertos“, which is set up in family homes, but also in cemeteries and public places. Altars are decorated with various symbolic offerings. Understanding the meanings of the many layered symbols helps prepare the photographer to see each scene more deeply. This in turn informs what to emphasize in each individual frame, as well as any larger story one wishes to tell.  Most amateurs just look for eye popping single images, without much regard for meaning or narrative. Depending on one’s experience level, this basic approach and just getting the camera settings correct can be difficult enough, so no worries! We touch on the main symbols below, and there is a lot more information online to help you prepare.

While an altar with two steps represents heaven and earth, an altar with three steps adds the underworld. The altar par excellence has seven steps, representing the seven planes the soul passes through on its way back to earth. According to the importance, different objects are placed on their corresponding levels.

Pan de Muerto - The Bread of the Dead nourishes the spirits after their long journey from higher realms. The flavor of Azahar, derived from a citrus flower, represents the memory of the deceased. Favorite foods of the particular deceased are also used. Food represents the element of earth.

Altar in Oaxaca - Mexiko

Water and Salt – The element of water slakes the soul’s thirst after the journey. Salt helps in the purification of souls. Candles – The element of fire. The light helps to guide the departed back to the living, and represents faith and hope. When four candles are placed on a cross, they are the four cardinal points orienting the soul from the cemetery where it first returns, then to the family home. Papel Picado – These brightly colored perforated paper designs represent the element of wind. They depict the deceased family member, and symbolize the fragility of life on earth. Sugar Skulls – Representing death and rebirth, these are used instead of the real skulls of the past. They are also made of chocolate and amaranth. Delicioso! Hand Crafted Skeletons – Known as Calacas, these funny characters serve as reminders of dead family members. They are often dressed in their favorite clothes, performing jobs or hobbies.