Day of the Dead Photo Tour Workshop - Mexico
Sina made this experience unique because of the love she has for Mexico and for the indigenous people she has made her friends. I can guarantee you that there is not another tour in Mexico that goes where we went and does what we did. Sina worked tirelessly... She's a gem. I would travel with her again in a minute. - Vera Hershenberg, USA
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). The unique celebrations, rites & rituals you will experience make for a myriad 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. You will have VIP 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 a midway change of pace bonus, we'll journey to a unique landscape location, the petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua. (Please see the Highlights section and itinerary below).
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 surpass expectations and 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!
Catrina Best Costume Competition
Petrified Waterfalls of Hierve el Agua
Night of the Dead Cemetary Celebrations
Colorful Indigenous Markets
Traditional Oaxaca Mezcal Production
Zapotec Villages & Ancient Handicrafts
Day of the Dead Photo Tour Workshop
Day 1 – Oaxaca Arrival - Bienvenido a MÉXICO!
We will greet you at the airport with a big smile whenever you arrive, so no worries. This includes yesterday if you decided to arrive early. It's a short drive to the hotel where we'll help you get checked in. Relax and get spruced up for your 4 pm orientation meeting, slideshow and question & answer session with Sina Falker. Your special Oaxacan Welcome Dinner follows in a fantastic, traditional restaurant. Be careful not to imbibe too much world famous Oaxaca mezcal though, as we have a big day planned for tomorrow that starts fairly early in the morning.
Day 2 – Oaxaca – Tule – A Giant Tree, Endless Flowers, Catrina Women
This intriguing day serves as a great warm up for the festivities to come. First up is Tule, home of the world’s fattest tree, which measures in with a circumference of 58 meters! Next, we visit a Zapotec village where they still walk barefoot & wear self woven, traditional costumes. The weaving, on long looms, dates back millennia. Later we meet Mexican photographer & lighting master, Fernando Cruz to photograph Catrina women in costume amid colorful fields filled with the “flowers of the dead”, called Cempasúchil. Fernando will share his expertise & lighting equipment to all those interested in giving it a shot!
Day 3 – Oaxaca Southern – Pan de Muerto, Village Life, Festival on Stilts
From flowers of the dead to the bread of the dead, the celebration of the dead continues to unveil itself! At the "Fería del Pan de Muerto" market we find various unique offerings to delight the spirits, from the aforementioned Pan de Muerto to skulls and bones made of sugar and a whole lot in between. There will be a lot of fun and intriguing street shooting today, followed by an afternoon visit to the "Panadería de Pedro Mendoza" bakery. The great Pedro himself will make a show of this unique and specialized art of baking spirited victuals. The day's main highlight arrives in the early evening in the form of a village procession! Costumed locals dancing on stilts present as main subjects while fireworks ignite the sky, lighting the way for dead's journey back to their families on earth.
Day 4 - Oaxaca - 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, draught horses, 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. Late afternoon takes back into the dead motif, at a cemetery! 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 5 – Oaxaca & Environs - Zapotecs and a Market for the Dead
This morning we take our already improving culture-in-action skills to a different Zapotec village, where they specialize in hand woven rugs of ancient origin. The next stop along the trail is a home factory where extraordinary candles are created for Day of the Dead celebrations. Trust us, the artistry involved is like nothing you have seen before. Following a very tasty lunch con cervezas, it is time to glide our beaming selves into the vibrant bustle of the Plaza de Muertos! This is a wonderful opportunity to capture Zapotecs hawking and shopping among the myriad accoutrement that decorate and symbolize various aspects of the coming main events.
Day 6 – Hierve el Agua - Petrified Landscapes & The Battle of the Catrinas!
Embark before sunrise (and tourists!) to seek the petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua. These inimitable rock formations span over mountainous terrain in awe inspiring panoramas. We will photograph this extraordinary landscape in the pristine, before tourists arrive, from different perspectives. It pays to get up early! Later on we visit the "Feria de Chocolate y Pan de Muerto", a chocolate lovers paradise where bread of the dead and other offerings are also traded. This evening caps a brilliant day with the very photogenic, Battle of the Catrinas! For weeks these fine ladies have worked on their extremely detailed costumes in hopes of winning this unforgettable competition.
Day 7 - Oaxaca & Environs - Freedom, Access, and The Night of the Dead!
October 31st. Big Night ahead! Sleep in. After lunch Sina will offer Photoshop Tips & Tricks for those interested. Then to the historical center where Oaxacans paint skulls on their faces. Your creative use of their mirrors provides opportunity for some impact image making. Next is private 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. At nightfall we hit the first cemetery of Oaxaca, where Mariachis serenade the dead. 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 for slow shutter, ghostly image making.?
Day 8 – 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. Later on we will photograph the Chinas procession dancers as they get made up and prepare for the big event. Once they are ready and before the parade begins, we have special VIP access to shoot them in a beautiful colonial courtyard. 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. Wow, what a day. Who wants to celebrate with a mezcal margarita before dinner?
Day 9 – Oaxaca & Environs - Day of the Dead 2.0 - Zapotec Style
Today we are welcomed back to the Zapotec weaving village to visit the elders of the community in their homes. The deceased are not received here until 3:00 pm on the 2nd November. The altars have been prepared according to old Zapotec tradition, providing us with unique photo opportunities in this reverentially joyous atmosphere. In the northern Oaxaca evening, we visit the most elaborately decorated cemetary in the region. Here, portraits of ancestors, Catrinas and other motifs are created from flower heads and fine colored powders. The celebrations continue late into the night, with offerings that include some of the finest Mezcals on earth! Here you'll have a second chance at some of those images you missed on Day 7, as well as many more that can only be captured here.
Day 10 – Oaxaca – Cempasuchil – Day of the Dead Finale, Farewell Dinner
On the last day of photography we venture to southern Oaxaca. First, we visit the remarkable blind artist, José Antonio. After lunch break, we drive to the cemetery of a nearby village famous for the Cempasúchil flower of the Día de Muertos. Since the inhabitants are busy selling the flowers until the Day of the Dead, they celebrate on November 3rd. The graves of their ancestors stand above the rest with their very artful flower decorations. The competition is sgtiff 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 11 – 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?
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
International flights to and from Mexico
Insurance (Trip cancellation, medical, etc.)
Other personal expenses
Drinks at meals other than water
Any OYO excursions
More Knowledge – Better Pictures
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.
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.