iPhone · tography: All Souls Procession

Each year in early November the Tucson community gathers to memorialize loved ones who have passed away in an event called the All Souls Procession. This is a cross-cultural event.  It blends the Mexican Dia de los Meutos (Day of the Dead) holiday with a larger artistic expression that encompasses both the sadness and the fond remembrance that accompanies the death of a friend or family member.  It culminates on Sunday evening with a march by participants to a symbolic pyre where written thoughts, prayers, and memories are burned in a shared celebration of how the lives of others have enriched our own.

This couple is somewhat typical of the skull-like face painting present on many participants at the All Souls Procession. If you squint your eyes you can really see it. For this image, I asked this pair to move to a shady spot since the softer light would allow the details of their face painting to show up better.

I am photographically drawn to this event by the sugar skull (calavera) iconography that is common to the Dia de los Muertos tradition.  In particular, it’s the face painting that imitates the decorative sugar skulls that makes photography at this festival special. Many participants create elaborate skull-like face paintings that are then enhanced with additional articles of clothing, headdresses, and various peripherals that set the mood for their personal involvement in the procession.  For a couple of hours before the parade starts, people are gathering on the street.  It’s a nice time to mingle with the growing crowd and look for pictures.

I think this lady perfectly captures the spirit of the day. Her face is painted like a decorative sugar skull, she’s wearing a flowery headdress, she has a skull tattoo on her shoulder, and she’s carrying the picture of the person she has come to remember.

While I’ve taken my camera to this event in previous years, I decided just to use the iPhone this year.  Even though it’s just an old first-gen iPhone SE, I like the screen for composing images.  I also like the light weight (4 ounces) for maneuverability and freedom, and the ability to shoot raw images for developing the resulting mages in Camera Raw and Photoshop. Linear profiles and luminosity masks work fine with DNG images from the iPhone.  I was a little concerned that the fixed 29-mm equivalent lens would be too short for people close-ups, but this turned out to not be an issue.

These painted ladies embrace the artistic side of this event. The sugar skull iconography has been taken to another level by the makeup artist, who, I think, is the woman on the right. Many painted faces contain color elements, but I often prefer a black and white presentation as it better emphasizes the monochrome, haunting nature of a skull. However, colors like this are more festive than haunting and deserve to be brought through to the final image.

I’m not much of a people photographer, but it seemed like people at this event were extremely open to being photographed. I guess we’re all used to having our pictures taken with smartphones nowadays, though usually not by strangers.  Since they were mostly unrecognizable in their face paint, the subjects were able to maintain a high degree of anonymity when an unfamiliar person asked to photograph them.  Even more, though, I think many people who had decorated themselves for the event wanted to be photographed.  It was a moment to be a celebrity, a chance to be noticed in a way that highlighted their own artistic expression.

This woman is carrying what I think is referred to as an offrenda, which is normally an altar containing pictures and items meant to commemorate the person who has died and to welcome their spirit into the home. This one was portable, and it created a useful frame for the subject’s face.

The nice thing about iPhone·tography is that the camera and camera app (I was mostly using the Lightroom Mobile camera app) does all the work.  It’s simple point-and-shoot photography. The camera found the faces, focused on them and set the exposure while I held the camera at arm’s length and attempted to engage the subject in conversation or direct their placement in the frame.  I did use the camera’s flash and it seemed to help add a little extra light to the faces while also creating a small catch light in the subject’s eyes.   I told the subjects I needed to move in close, and no one seemed to mind.  I was an arm’s length behind the camera, so it’s less of an intrusion into their personal space.  It also felt better from my perspective.  I liked having the extra distance while still being able to get some nice close ups of these faces. 

Backgrounds can problematic in these street portraits, and it’s a reason to fill the frame as much as possible with the subject’s face. Obtrusive backgrounds are also a reason for switching to black and white. Then it becomes a matter of just darkening distracting background elements tonally instead of having to manage their colors as well. This image is a good one for seeing the catch light from the camera’s flash in the subject’s eyes.

Another benefit of iPhone images is the ability to easily share the results with the subjects.  The larger phone screen is definitely better than almost any camera LED display for doing this.  While I think it’s courteous to show the images to the subject, I was a little surprised at how many then requested a copy.  Being able to instantly share the results with the subject creates an interesting new dimension.  It’s something that maybe only happens when photographing people with a smartphone. 

This is another example of where I felt the colors in the face painting deserved to be brought through to the finished image. The person was position with a slightly less chaotic background where the colors would still be manageable and didn’t compete with the face painting. The flash helped preserve light on the face which made processing easier. This image uses the sketch actions in the TK8 plugin to produce the final results.

While there were plenty of regular cameras at this event with long lenses, flash, and reflectors, I have no regrets about only taking and using my single-lens iPhone. It was easy to engage with the subjects while taking pictures and the images turned out better than expected. It was also an interesting challenge to compose with a shorter focal length lens, but in the end I think it might have created a better connection with the subject both photographically and personally. Not surprisingly, a street festival like this can be a great place for photography, and the iPhone can be a fun way to explore the possibilities.