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Advice for the Amateur Photographer Visiting Oaxaca, Mexico

by Alvin Starkman of Casa Machaya
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As good a photographer as you think you are, taking pictures in a developing nation like Mexico requires somewhat of a different skill-set than when shooting in mainstream Canadian or American society. Photographing in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, for example, can make for a rich and rewarding experience, but only if travelers to its capital and central valleys exercise forethought, cultural sensitivity and common sense.

Planning a Photography Visit to Oaxaca, Mexico

The professional photographer knows how many of what to bring, and may even make a list in advance. But the novice often doesn't think enough about what can go wrong. Experience has proven that lens caps get lost, filters break, memory cards get filled, batteries die and chargers are misplaced. And arguably the most serious mishap is a camera, or at least an important function in it, breaking down. So bring along extras and keep everything together, in a place where you likely won't lose anything. Most importantly, just in case pack the point-and-shoot which has been stored in a closet or drawer since you bought your new SLR. It's lightweight, doesn't take up much space and is a reasonable substitute when you're in a jam.

Even if you don't think a tripod will be necessary, bring along a cheap mini, just in case.

Do your research before deciding upon travel dates. Sometimes tourists don't do so, and end up leaving Oaxaca a day or two before important photographic opportunities arise [i.e. just in advance of the first Guelaguetza or a significant village festival, October 30 (prior to Día de los Muertos), December 7 or 22 (before the Virgin of Juquila and Noche de Rábanos respectively), and so on]. Keep in mind that the Sunday market in Tlacolula provides one of the richest opportunities for photographing native vendors in traditional ethnic garb.

Ensure that you are not bringing more equipment into Mexico than customs and immigration regulations permit. Check with the closest Mexican embassy or online. The last thing you want to happen at the airport upon arrival, whether in Oaxaca or in Mexico City, is to have your baggage checked only to learn that without appropriate documentation you can only bring one camera per person into the country. Prepare a list of make, model and serial number of each piece of photographic equipment, in case of problems at the border or in the event of theft.

Reserve your driver or guide before you leave for Oaxaca, and if you're coming during high season do so as soon as you've secured accommodations. The better ones get booked months in advance, and you don't want to get stuck having to hop onto a tour bus or hire a cabbie whose English is shaky, whose taxi even more so, or who doesn't have a known track record for getting photographers to where they should be in the course of a couple of days touring the valley sights.

In the exchange of emails with your man-on-the-ground, explain what you'll be looking for, such as exquisite panoramas, pre-Hispanic ruins which are infrequently touristed, or people in their natural village settings. He may even have a suggestion, such as the dilapidated shell of a centuries old former hacienda now abandoned and overgrown with weeds. Prioritize, thereby making it easier for your driver to make suggestions and provide options.

For at least one excursion through Oaxaca's hinterland you'll likely be interested in either starting out extremely early or staying on the road as dusk approaches. There are some extraordinary photographic opportunities which arise before daybreak and at night [i.e. parades and other festivities around celebrations, Day of the Dead, hunting excursions, collecting aguamiel out in the fields of agave, to name a few], so if you have a small light kit, and you intend to try to fit one of these or similar stops into the trip, it may be worthwhile bringing it along.

There are some ruins which do not have attendants to open them in the morning and lock them up at late afternoon closing time, so you should have an opportunity to shoot early and as dusk approaches. On the other hand, at some of the smaller ruins the attendants can at times be talked into letting you stay after hours.

You can always tweak plans after your arrival, but it's often best to make arrangements in advance. A particular craftsperson you want to photograph may be out of town, or a unique process may not be up and running for any number of reasons.

In some instances it's important to not only consider travel dates, but also seasons. For example, if you're interested in photographing the hunt for chapulines, you won't want to vacation between December and the beginning of the rainy season. Similarly if your priority is learning about and shooting mushrooms in the wild through visiting Oaxaca's Ixtlán district [the Sierra Norte], you'll want to avoid travelling to Oaxaca during the peak of the dry season. On the other hand the most arid months afford the best opportunity for shooting certain vegetation.

Guidelines to Follow While in Oaxaca to Ensure a Quality Photographic Vacation

While of course you've heeded all of the foregoing, upon your arrival at the hotel it's nevertheless a good idea to get the address of a reputable downtown Oaxaca camera shop in case you need a quick repair or adjustment, or emergency purchase. For buying there's always Sam´s Club if all else fails, and camera shops can provide the particulars of a repairman if they cannot look after your problem in a timely fashion.

Especially in the markets, be respectful of people's wish to not be photographed. Although it rarely happens, there's at least one local market where the women in particular have a habit of becoming rather nasty, and even aggressive. On the other hand, keeping a pocketful of ten peso coins can often sway sentiments in your favor. Even if permission is granted with no strings attached, if it's a vendor you're shooting, consider doing the right thing and buying something, if only as a token of your appreciation.

While it's generally safe and secure photographing in markets, be particularly vigilant when in crowded areas. Thieves do on occasion frequent markets, especially during high tourist season. Consider keeping your camera and sundry equipment is a non-descript bag rather than in something that screams out value, and when you're reasonably certain you won't be shooting, keep the camera out of sight. This might be a good time to have the point-and-shoot in your pocket ready to use if the moment unexpectedly arises.

Virtually all churches permit photography, even during mass, but flash photography is usually prohibited - except for photographers shooting a wedding, confirmation, quince años and other such rites of passage. Especially when taking pictures in a church, men should consider wearing long pants and a shirt with a collar.

Photography is permitted at ruins and in museums, but flash photography is usually prohibited, at least in the case of the latter, and in the interior of tombs at the former. Even if no sign appears, use common sense. If intending to video, note that in some instances there's an extra charge levied at the ticket booth.

Most craft workshops and craftspeople permit and even encourage you to take photographs. However at some stops there is a sign prohibiting the taking of photographs of product for sale on the shelves. But feel free to ask, especially if arrangements for your attendance have been made in advance.

If you are taking a cooking class or having other lessons, ask first if you are permitted to photograph. With regard to the former, in some cases arrangements must be made in advance with the chef, because of the likelihood that others taking the lesson may become distracted or simply object for personal reasons. Generally if the matter is dealt with a day or so prior to the class, accommodation can and will be made.

The professional photographer is seasoned and bold enough to ask prospective subjects for exactly what he wants, be it having them pose, repeating work tasks already completed, or even adjusting clothing. The amateur is often not as bold or determined to get that perfect shot. But the guide you have along with you can be your buffer. He often has close relationships with native villagers, to the extent that he can request what you want, and not be held back by reticence. The result will be a Oaxacan photographic experience which will stay with you for years to come. Indeed, if it's all done properly, one of your photographs may end up on the cover of a travel magazine, for the world to see.

Alvin Starkman has worked with both amateur and professional photographers, as well as with documentary film production companies filming in Oaxaca, over the past several years. He co-owns Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast and Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com). Alvin has written over 280 articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca and its central valleys.

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