Dia de muertos

The day of the living is everyday, although the living don’t seem to realize it. The dead have their day too, when the living are invoking them, talking to them, talking about them without being regarded as morbid or mad. Social conventions are dropped for a while, as in all traditional celebrations. Then we put the mask back on.

All Saints Day is celebrated on the 1st of November. Dia de Muertos was originally celebrated in Mexico at the beginning of the summer, but gradually shifted towards November, to coincide with the Catholic holiday.

At the end of last year, I accompanied this procession through Brussels.

Painted faces, skeleton costumes, skull masks, bright colors, excited kids running around, scary characters popping up out of nowhere, smell of incense, singing and chanting.

There is something special about a mass of people moving slowly together purposefully. There’s an energy that slowly gets you and carries you with it. You can feel it in gatherings, demonstrations and processions.

Having a camera means that you can let yourself be part of it and at the same time keep some distance, in order to see things in their context and assess what is meaningful and worth capturing.

Mariachis singing and playing in the St. Gilles district.
Violin player in the procession.
The Master of Ceremonies dancing and leading the crowd.
A giant skeleton passes by the Church Notre-Dame de la Chapelle. The painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder was buried here.

Silent streets

The crowds will eventually return. The students, the rich, the tourists, the loners, the freaks, the drinkers will cross each other again along these medieval streets.

These streets have known plague, war, famine and dispair. They have known joy, endless evenings on the terraces, couples making out, groups of friends celebrating something, doesn’t matter what, people walking alone with the wind in their hair.

But for now, the city still lives its silent life. Still breaths its hidden breathing. Almost deserted.

Street highlights and shadows, with the tower of the Brussels City Hall in the background.
Old books on display in a closed pub.
Street art and oblique shadows.

The summer before the virus

Belgium is not known for its sunny climate. It’s not that uncommon to have weeks upon weeks of rain and grayness. But when the sun finally comes out, it transforms everything. The streets, the buildings, the people.

In September 2019 I went out for a weekend walk with my camera and I stumbled upon this brocante (flea market) extending across several streets. Most of the sellers were locals, people who had just impovised a selling stand right outside their home.

There is a special warmth to moments like these, when people gather not to protest, strike, demand things or try to convince others, but rather to enjoy each other’s company. There are no expectations. You can sell valuable artwork or used shoes. You can come on a high budget or lose half a day reading old books on display and leave without buying anything. Nobody gets upset.

There’s a lot of street artwork in central Brussels, some of it based on cartoon characters. Sometimes you cannot miss it, as it takes an entire side wall of a building, on a popular street. Some other times you need to know where to look, as it’s been carefully hidden.

That day, in the crowd of the flea market, I felt like I was meeting some of these characters in real life. As if they’ve descended off the walls and mingled with the people. Trying to pass unnoticed but still having something cartoonish and slightly off about them.

Isolation

It’s not until you are forced to isolate that you realize to what degree photography is a social activity. I don’t mean just taking photos but the whole lifecycle of a photo. Planning, travelling, publishing your work – it all depends on a social infrastructure we usually take for granted. From the inspiration we take and the feedback we receive to the coffee we are able to buy early morning, before we get to the location, it is all part of how we organize our life together.

Lisbon/Alfama, Nov 2019. Harsh afternoon light can be interesting. This scene wouldn’t have worked at sunrise or sunset. The sun needs to be high enough so that this church entrance is directly lit, with all the shadows and patterns it creates.

While getting feedback online may have gotten easier, with so many people staying at home, other parts of this social web are not doing ok. That seller of coffee may never reopen. Your retired photographer friend may fall seriously ill. Anxiety and depression are a lot closer than usual.

Is there a silver lining to this?

I think so. I think there always is, even in the gloomiest of situations.

For one, isolation gives a lot of head space. You have the time to reflect on what is it that attracted you to photography in the first place. Or what made you start a particular photo project and invest so much of you into it. Or where you want to go from here, how you want to develop. These simple questions may be at the back of our heads, but chances are we don’t often confront them directly. Even with the activities we love, we are functioning most of the time on autopilot.

Isolation also gives us the chance to look more closely at the work we did so far. Organize it better. Maybe drop the conventional categories that you used so far on your website or blog to group and present your photos. Find more organic ways of connecting them, that goes across traditional categories. Put together portraits, landscapes and urban shots that are all about light – the quality of light and how it transforms the scene.

This may result in more work. Revamping that site. Think differently about what are our best photographs. Go back and re-edit some of them.

This may also result in a radical change of the type of photography that we do. Business as usual is not particularly conducive to revolutionary changes, even if we’ve been feeling stuck or unhappy with that way of doing things for a long time. Disruptions are painful, but they also make it easier to accept change.

Wild at heart

This is not an urban park and it’s not the city seen from the outside.

This patch of wilderness has formed pretty much by itself, not far from downtown Bucharest, on the site of a huge construction project of the communist era. Trees began to grow, water accumulated and formed small lakes, reeds started conquering everything. And then foxes, rabbits, rats and hedgehogs and birds of all kinds made it their home.

All this life that has been pushed away by the city to its margins and towards extinction is now claiming its right to exist here. A few years ago, it has been finally granted the status of natural park and protected area.

A long time ago, I lived at some point close to what was then a deserted project site. I knew about it and I kind of circled it from afar, but I’ve never actually entered. To go there was to look for trouble.

In a Terry Gilliam movie (Twelwe Monkeys, 1995), nature takes over the deserted city, as most of the human population is wiped out by a virus. It’s the post-apocaliptic comeback of wilderness.

Fortunately, this wild area developed without Bucharest being destroyed. But part of it was. This used to be a residential area, with small houses, gardens and narrow streets. They were wiped out to make space for the wet dreams of a communist dictator, just as many other historical areas of the city. The project failed and then the dictator fell. And the area started a life of its own.

Mirrors and decay

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

Mirrors are often the symbol of the hidden, the subconscious. They are gates to something that is not readily available or visible, but can become visible during some sort of altered state.

In the fairy tale of Snow White, the mirror is the one telling the truth, revealing the true nature of the charaters. Vampire stories insist on the fact that vampires are invisible in the mirror, as they have no soul.

In the Greek mythology, Narcissus is punished by the gods to fall in love with himself after seeing his reflection in a lake.

Oscar Wilde has a well-known novel in which his character, Dorian Gray, sells his soul so he can stay young and beautiful, while his portrait on the wall, metaphorically a mirror, ages and becomes more wrinkled by the day.

Lewis Carrol wrote about a mirror giving Alice access to a parallel world where everything we experience here is working the other way around, such as getting closer to things by running away from them.

I took this shot in an old cafe and dance club of Brussels. It has been deserted for decades and it has decayed slowly into a ruin. A beautiful ruin.

The mirrors of the staircase have become foggy and wrinkled with age, and everything they reflect is slightly bent and out of focus, as in a dream.