Saturday, January 1, 2011

Procession of Souls

“With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” (Steven Weinberg)
Christmas Eve luminarias at the Tumacacori Mission, in southern Arizona 

“…And then after dark we’re all going over to an old Spanish mission where they set out thousands of luminarias," I told her. "It’s beautiful.”

I was on the phone in Arizona, describing our Christmas Eve plans to a dear friend in Montana – a friend who just happens to be an expert on Native American history. She acknowledged today’s beauty, and then she reminded me what yesteryear’s missionaries did to our native cultures. With the best of intentions, they tried to wipe them out.

Some of the glow faded from our evening plans, and my pre-conceived photograph changed directions. Instead of making a warm, romantic image of the old mission illuminated by candlelight – like all the other photographers – I would focus instead on the procession of souls winding past the crumbling remains. And at the last minute, I decided to sacrifice my tripod and leave it behind.

One camera, one lens, one thousand candles.

Each luminaria is one small tea candle resting in sand inside a small, brown paper bag. Pretty dim. I made one test exposure, then set my camera to collect candles and stars. Fifteen seconds at ISO 4500, 16mm f2.8 lens wide open. What I couldn’t control was the flickering of strobes from cameras in front and off to camera left. I counted roughly 1-5 flashes every 15 seconds. This is gonna’ be interesting...

I placed my camera on the ground (no tripod, remember?) next to the main path and built up a small, sandy berm under the lens to aim for stars. As strangers walked slowly past, I knelt before them and and collected their images.

Luminarias and stars framed the mission. Random, distant flashes turned people into ghost images (left and right) against the night sky. Bursts of light closer to the mission made brick silhouettes (center) out of people walking through a 15-second exposure. And one woman (far right) made a light painting self-portrait when she stopped long enough to look at the screen on the back of her digital camera.

The image is simple and complex at the same time, sort of like history. “Pretty” images and stories sell better, but "original" is almost always more intriguing to me. I hope my dear friend approves. And I hope the powers that be can forgive our good intentions, no matter the year.


  1. Saw your post via a tweet from David Hobby. This is an awesome capture!

  2. Same as the first comment, found your site through David Hobby's twitter post. Glad I did, because you have a fantastic image here. Great job and thanks for sharing.

  3. This is one amazing image John. Finder's fee out to the Strobist.

  4. Stunning, This is stunning and also good for the inspiration of others ;-)

  5. Oh, John. This is amazing. Haunting. As it should be. She more than approves...