Holy Week (Semana Santa) in La Antigua Guatemala

Every year I take a trip to work on my travel-photography passion. This year, I stepped outside of my comfort zone by photographing Holy Week in La Antigua Guatemala (the town’s official name), Guatemala with National Geographic photographer, Raul Touzon. I wanted to try something different and surround myself with other photographers. The experience was intense (to say the least), but at the end of the day I am so grateful I did it and I believe that it has changed me.

I’ve been a professional photographer for over 13 years and it’s refreshing to know that even after so many years I can still be challenged. These challenges only help to improve my skills as a photographer.

My red eye flight arrived in Guatemala at 5:30am and we were on the streets shooting by 8am. If you haven’t experienced Holy Week before, it’s impossible not to be moved. The people in this small town are extremely devout and show their respect to Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary in beautiful displays and rituals. Over 250,000 people show up for these celebrations so we had to get there early to position ourselves for the best photographic opportunities. Antigüeños, dressed in long robes carry large wooden statues and “andas” (large wooden floats, some weighing over 6,000 pounds) of Christ and the Virgin Mary. These processionals follow vigils in churches and occur twice a day – most with men carrying the andas, but many with women and children too. They walk through-out the streets with constant music hovering in the air. The atmosphere is so thick with passion, devotion and pride that I found myself moved to tears.

I did my best to capture everything but I definitely felt outside of my comfort zone. Photographing Holy Week is not at all like photographing a wedding. Raul restricted our shooting to wide-angle lenses only with an emphasis on composition. No post production allowed – everything had to be perfect in camera! That meant having to really paying attention and focusing on everything within the frame. I was pushed to my creative brink. Patience was key for this shoot – there were some shots that took me three hours to set up (like the one above), just waiting for that perfect moment. With the near constant processionals and celebrations, sometimes we shot for 48 hours straight. It was mentally and physically exhausting… I couldn’t be lazy with my shooting. Especially since we had daily morning critiques with our fellow photographers. But with every uncomfortable roadblock I faced, it only made me more determined to work harder.

There were so many elements of Holy Week I wish I had more time to capture properly. There are beautifully intricate flower and sawdust carpets that covered the streets and church floors. The Antigüeños would work through out the night to create these colorful and complex floral patterns and vignettes that tell the story of Christ. Each one would be tramped by the processionals, their beauty only temporary.

Music was another element of Holy Week I want to explore more. I did a short portrait series of these musicians, who I felt were the unsung heroes of the celebration. The people in the processionals were switched out every few blocks, but these musicians would play for 12 hours straight. Each step of the processional moved forward with every drum beat. I wanted my portraits to honor the musicians. Working through the language barrier and my normal style, I challenged myself to take these portraits and do them justice.

I learned so much about myself during these 10 days. And I’ve already signed myself up to go again next year. I realized that even as tough as it was, I wouldn’t have done anything different. Sometimes you need to be completely broken down before you can rebuild yourself. This is just a part of growing as a photographer, even after all these years.

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