Interview – Ross Fraser McLean – Capturing Mexican Death Rituals Through Photography
Scottish photographer Ross Fraser McLean has traveled all around the world, capturing the lifestyles of many different cultures. It was the Mexican rituals he found the most intriguing and which he decided to investigate for three years, resulting in stunning photos that reflect their relationship with death. I asked him about his numerous adventures and his near-brushes with death, the things we could learn from Mexican death culture and his visits to over 150 cemeteries.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word ‘death’?
My Father. He died at the age of 54 when I had not long turned 18. I held his hand when he died; a moment that has always stuck with me. In a funny way it was as much a beginning as it was an end.
I woke with a jolt from the sleep of denial we are lulled into here in the West. Like a hypnopompic hallucination, I found myself eye to eye with a long line of adults dressed in black. A shared goodbye. Some keen on shaking my hand, to squeeze a shoulder or tell me how strong I was. My father’s funeral was a surreal but transformative proceeding. The following years were tough but it’s all about the balance and I opened as many doors as I could find. As a subconscious rebellion I kept my spirit young as I embraced the world at large, unfettered by the laws of logic.
What the word ‘death’ means to me has transformed over the years and is always evolving as I delve deeper into my internal workings, like finding the invisible key to some kind of complex puzzle. Death knocking has become a symbiotic partner to me as I traverse my own way head first into life.
What is your background, were you raised religious?
I grew up in Scotland, Dundee born and bred. Dundee is a village of a city on the North East Coast of Scotland. The city climbs from the silvery River Tay up and over an extinct volcano known definitively as The Law. The house I grew up in sits quite far up the slopes of this hill. Not far from home, closer to the top of the Law, a Gothic church called the High Kirk stands stalwart. I can remember climbing the stone steps on a Sunday morning as a kid, to be taught about rights and wrongs and heaven and hell.
I have always been interested in systems for living and religion, but being a bit of an alien I’ve mostly sat on the outside of them. I feel more open and curious with my spirituality than organised religion seems to allow. Subsequently exploring many other countries around the world has strengthened my faith in something, but I am still not quite sure what that is.
Have you ever been close to dying yourself?
I love life and I love being alive, but I have tested my mortality a number of times. Like many a young ignorant man I was under the impression of being invincible. Clearly this is not quite the case, but it did get me through quite a few extreme situations. From getting a little too entangled with the Sapera caste of snake charmers in India to photographing the aftermath of the assassination of Rafic Hariri (the former Prime Minister of Lebanon), I have long felt inspired to get close to the edge.
I think this visually shows in my work as well. When lighting a subject in the studio, the closer you bring in the lights, the higher the contrast becomes. I like contrast but I’ve always paid careful attention to retaining the details in the highlights whilst also sharing the information in the shadows. I want to feel the extremities of contrast without over simplifying the image itself. This is largely what appealed to me so much about Mexico, a country of contrasts. The brighter the light, the darker the shadows.
“I am drawn to the Mexican idea of death as an equaliser. An unequivocal acquaintance between the rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, the criminal and law-abiding.”
Tell me about your journey through Mexico where you explored the Mexican death culture. What inspired you to go there?
For a long time I had dreamed of going to Mexico. What I found when I finally went there was a place more surreal than my imagination. Many photographers whose work I admire have eulogised daily life in Mexico. I guess I’d always had an interest in Mexico, because for some time now I have had an interest in life and death. As a country of contrasts, it seems that in the root of their indigenous beliefs they are very open in their confrontation of this duality.
Truth is, my initial plan was only to spend a month there, then to travel south of Mexico through Central America overland, to make it to South America and Rio in time for Carnival. But I fell in love with the complex country of Mexico and decided we deserved each other a little longer. I felt a real kinship with the Mexican people in general, almost like feeling at home, recognising a parallel between the spirit of the Mexicans and the Scots. Each culture fond of the escapism of inebriation, each a little crazy and warm and generous in equal measure.
I soon realised that the timing of my arrival coincided with the disappearance of the 43 students, the Iguala mass kidnapping. So whilst I was led there initially by their iconography of death, I actually stumbled upon a more socio-political story of the effects of death within Mexican culture. On September 26 2014, 43 male students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College were forcibly taken then disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico.
I arrived in October and witnessed many protests across the country as I travelled north and south. The culmination of these protests gathered in the main avenue of Mexico City on December 1st 2014. This was the first time there had been protests of this scale since the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, which resulted in the deaths of 300-400 protestors just 10 days before the Summer Olympics. When I was there in 2014, taking part in and documenting the protests had a deeper emotional impact on me than I had originally expected.
I decided to return to explore this story further over 2015 and 2016. This led me to a specific location in the south, largely by chance, where the local cartel burns the bodies of the people that they want to dispose of. Clandestine graves in the red dirt, 11 human sized patches of grey ash were photographed as the sun set. With a charred belt buckle found alongside fragments of bone amongst the coconut husks that were used to fuel the fires overnight. These experiences amongst other such intensities became part of a bigger ongoing project I named Ceiba, after the Mayan tree of life. The ancient Maya believed that a great Ceiba tree stood at the centre of the earth, connecting the terrestrial world to the spirit-world above.
What were the most remarkable differences between the way death is experienced in Mexico in comparison to the UK?
I am drawn to the Mexican idea of death as an equaliser. An unequivocal acquaintance between the rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, the criminal and law-abiding. It’s funny because here in the UK when making small talk we often talk about the weather. This is something that affects us all no matter what class or background we are from. The rain rains on us all, but we share the sunshine sometimes too.
In Mexico however, with arguably an even bigger gap between the rich and the poor, it is death that is used as an equaliser. “Did you see the two decapitated bodies under the bridge today?” was an actual conversation that I had with a local in Guerrero. I guess it acts as a reminder that everyone is in the same boat. Nobody remains unaffected. Death doesn’t care how many gold coins you have in your pocket.
Another difference is that life in Mexico is a lot less safe in general than in the UK. This casual commonplace acceptance of death in Mexico is fundamental to actually accepting that shit happens and we all die anyway – so you might as well stop complaining and get on with living the best life that you can.
How many cemeteries did you visit during your research in Mexico?
I spent eight months travelling and exploring this vast country and I visited a different cemetery almost every day. Between the two trips I made to Mexico I shot over 400 rolls of film, both medium format and 35mm. I’ve shot photographs in over 150 cemeteries.
It became part of my daily ritual to visit them mostly at the end of the day, to catch the evanescent light as it transcended these hallowed grounds into darkness. This allowed for a quiet and meditative moment of respite from the intensities of photographing Mexican daily life. From the vibrant pandemonium of the streets, I found myself amongst the calm of familiar ghosts.
There is an analogy that a photograph is like a ghost or a phantom, a marker, something that exists outside of time itself but forever remains an illusion of reality. Each state, city, town or village in Mexico had it’s own personality and this presented itself in a more understandable scale through the cemeteries. Alongside the economical, social and spiritual aspects, the colours, materials and vegetation transformed quite dramatically from north to south. To put things into perspective: almost all of the countries in Europe can fit into the land mass of Mexico, yet this is often lost on our political maps.
“In Mexico death is always up close and personal, never hidden. They dance with death, and death is always a welcome guest at the table.”
One cemetery that stood out was completely overgrown with luscious tropical vegetation, having previously been completely submerged underwater during the rainy season. Another could be the cemetery of San Sebastian in Chamula, Chiapas, where it is against the indigenous beliefs to use any form of stone. Instead there are mounds of soft brown earth, each scattered with flower petals, each the approximate size of a person, uniformly laid out with a simple wooden cross at the head. Whilst walking the thin line along the edge of the graves, the thought that you could potentially accidentally place a foot wrong and step straight into one of these was a subtle reminder of how fragile life can be.
The beautiful white and pastel grey tones of the stone tombs of Cementerio Particular Veracruzano were the backdrop to an unexpectedly large population of wandering street cats. With a joke made that they were possessed by the spirits of the dead buried there, they were kept well fed by some of the local widows who frequent the cemetery. The pale grey smoke caused by workers burning dead flowers hung in the air, like a vision of a spectre under a tree.
I visited sunny beach cemeteries, foggy mountain cemeteries, dry desert cemeteries and humid jungle cemeteries. Towards the end of my most recent trip I decided that I must also visit Jardines de Humaya, in Culiacan Sinaloa. This is the infamous cartel cemetery, with many buried here under the age of 25, casualties of the violence of drug dealing related activities and buried in lavish tombs as displays of power and wealth even from the grave.
Before taking a three hour flight and a ten hour bus journey to get me there from the opposite side of Mexico, with regards to my own safety I contacted a local photographer from Culiacan whom I had found online. He had moved away himself but seemed to think it was okay for me to visit. Whilst there I discovered that two other people photographing in this cemetery were taken out and shot dead there and then just a few weeks before. I decided it was probably best to leave.
You were in Mexico during Dia de los Muertos. What was that like?
Dia de los Muertos was a really humbling experience for me. I travelled by road for five hours west of Mexico City to the state of Michoacán. After a candle-lit midnight boat procession to the main island of Lake Pátzcuaro, I found myself upon Isla de Janitzio (which means “where it rains” in Purépecha, the local indigenous language). Isla de Janitzio is famous for her fishermen with their butterfly nets and also her Day of the Dead festivities.
It was humbling because I went out there expecting a carnival or some kind of party, but in actual fact what I found was a tender and sacred moment in which the local inhabitants gather as families for an all night vigil to remember their departed loved ones. Orange marigolds or ‘cempasúchil’ individually hang from fishermen’s nets strung-up in utilitarian spaces. These vibrant flowers huddle bunched in baskets and adorn intricate shrines that stand tall by each of the graves. Incense wisped through the air, a church bell echoed across a graveyard lit by thousands of shimmering candles. There were no painted sugar skull faces, but there was the weight of real emotion worn by many, caught only in glimpses of the flickering light.
The next night I found myself in the city of Morelia, surrounded by young faces painted to appear cadaverous. The next year, with thanks to Gem & Bolt I found myself in Oaxaca in an old hacienda creating an altar of my own, comprised of offerings or ‘ofrendas’ sourced from the local market.
Built upon a beaten up old blue dresser, an arch of sugar cane bound with twine, hung with orange marigolds, radishes, scattered frijoles black beans, banana leaves carefully unfolded, tall sticks stripped smooth of their bark. Special stones, sugar skulls, magic candles, magic soap, alleged rattle viper sperm incense, church candles, more marigolds, cinnamon sticks, apples, oranges, bunched garlic, ‘pan de muerto’ or dead bread. Giant gourds and a vintage sewing machine, hand carved wooden calaveras, a walking stick, a catapult, even more marigolds, mezcal, mushrooms and more mezcal. Roses.
“Incense wisped through the air, a church bell echoed across a graveyard lit by thousands of shimmering candles.”
What is your opinion on the way we deal with death here in the West? Do you think there are some things we can learn from the Mexican culture?
I think that here in the west we are too closed about death. It is a taboo subject at best. I was always very aware that my grieving process for my dad and subsequent experiences of death were not in line with my own culture. Upon many occasion in my twenties I would end up drunk and ambush innocent strangers with my thoughts on mortality and death. Grieving is not simply allotted to a certain exactitude of time, it is a living and breathing thing that grows and transforms as you do. Although it is such a taboo subject in polite British society, an awkward turtle moment of any conversation.
In turn, I became a confidant to others who had similarly been affected by that which will eventually touch us all. Photographer Diane Arbus said: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” Less poetic perhaps, but I believe that photography as a medium can be a secret hidden in plain sight. I was using it as a method of processing my emotions and exhuming my anger at being confronted with my own mortality.
Photography continues to play the role of therapy in my life. The theme of death is one that has informed all of my past photography projects, just not so overtly as with my Mexican body of work. The grieving process as an ongoing, living thing. Something that is not black and white, something that scatters itself through all of the other colours of the human experience. The symbolism of all my photos is a form of meaning making, where a Cuban workshop becomes a sacred space, or a vintage car from the 50s became a portrait of my father.
I think that here in the West we would benefit from the empathy that openness brings. At the end of the day, the subject of our mortality is a universal experience. In our culture, death is either buried deep in denial or even outsourced. The ideas of heaven and hell are perhaps outside of ourselves, whereas in Mexico death is always up close and personal, never hidden. They dance with death, and death is always a welcome guest at the table.
Mexico’s Muertos iconography was in origin penned by political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada. The most famous ‘La Calavera Catrina’ aka ‘Dapper Skeleton’ or ‘Elegant Skull’ was drawn in 1910 and is arguably the country’s quintessential image of death. Posada created her as a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolution era. So even back then there was a public critique of the homogenisation of our cultures.
After spending some time in Mexico and really listening and looking, it felt very much apparent that everything familiar was built on a very different set of rules, core beliefs or foundations. Quite literally bringing to mind the image of the Spanish Conquistadors building a Catholic Church unwittingly on top of what was later discovered to be the world’s largest pyramid, the Great Pyramid of Cholula. A place of worship for the indigenous people that was so massive, it was actually mistaken for a mountain. Not only is it the world’s largest pyramid, it retains the title of the largest monument ever constructed anywhere on Earth, by any civilisation, to this day. Famed Conquistador Hernán Cortés in his arrogance completely missed it. There is a lot to be learned from that.
How do you envision your own funeral?
Not that I actually believe that I would make it to Valhalla, but I want my corpse to float out on a wicker boat with a flaming arrow closely following, setting the whole thing ablaze before sending whatever is left of me to feed the fishes.
Image credits: all images by Ross Fraser McLean.