I remember overhearing a conversation in a coffee shop some years ago where a gentleman said something like this:
“I always have people ask me why I’m so serious. I often overhear people telling their friends not to take ‘this’ or ‘that’ too seriously. And I got to thinking about it. If we need to learn how to not take life so damn seriously, we ought also to learn to not take death so seriously.”
I’m not sure, but it stuck with me. A simple exchange, maybe a completely spontaneous thought from a total stranger I was eavesdropping on – but it stuck with me. I think about it often, especially after losing several friends, relatives, and acquaintances over the past several years. It’s unusual to me – at least intellectually – to be so incredibly afraid of something that literally every single living thing in the cosmos will eventually have to do, which is to die.
Different cultures treat death differently, but there are always common themes of loss, sadness, tragedy and redemption, rebirth, or some form of ‘life after death.’ I’ve enjoyed photographing various rituals and discovering some of the nuances of life and death celebrations in the American Southwest and Mexico.
“I shall not die of a cold. I shall die of having lived.”
I could fill several volumes with images gathered from the All Souls’ Procession. I haven’t made it out to the celebration every single year, but I have missed very few. In more than fifteen years, I still think this is the one that I enjoy the most – a photograph of a random young girl in the middle of 4th Avenue. This wasn’t staged – I just turned around and saw this little girl;she looked at me with my camera turned towards her.
For several years, while I was living in the borderlands of Southeastern Arizona, I made it a point to attend the annual Cochise College Pit Fire. The entire evening surrounds a main event, the lighting of the pit fire itself; it’s an ancient method of baking clay pottery in which the pottery is placed in a trench dug into the ground with a wood fire burning above it. The result is pottery covered in interesting patterns and colors.
The evening is peppered with various musical performances on several outdoor stages, dance performances, acrobatics, theater art, gourmet food supplied by the college’s culinary arts club, and other vendors. It’s free for anybody who wants to attend, and it is genuinely one of the more interesting (and little-known) events in this somewhat remote area of Cochise County, right along the Mexican border.
I wouldn’t even be able to tell you if today’s picture depicts a booked performance artist or if it’s just an enthusiastic attendee who decided to spin poi in the field where the pit fire’s lit. It doesn’t really matter – it illustrates the energy and creativity of the event.
If you live in southern Arizona and want to attend, all you need to do is mark your calendar. You can check out their website here.
There really isn’t much that I have to say about All Souls. For anybody who has lived in Southern Arizona, you already know about it. For everybody else, the All Souls Procession is a Tucson tradition that culminates in a community-wide procession through the downtown area, ending with a grand finale of pyrotechnic theater, live music, and acrobatics. The event first began in 1990 by a local artist, Susan Kay Johnson, who wished to express her sadness over the loss of her father; she wanted to ritualize her grief and create an event, much like Dia de los Muertos, to honor the dead.
Tens of thousands participate every year. People start to gather along 4th and 6th avenues before sun-down, arriving in costume, tailgating and helping paint each other’s faces in a fashion reminiscent of Day of the Dead. Jugglers and street performers, musicians and stilt-walkers weave through the throngs of people. Participants are encouraged to write notes to the dead on pieces of paper and deposit them into a giant urn that leads the procession – once the urn reaches the end of the procession, it is elevated above the crowd and set ablaze.
I have never seen a not-for-profit, grass-roots community event like this anywhere else. It’s an amazing thing to see.