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The culture of Mexican fireworks revealed, through the lens of an AP photographer

Residents push a giant paper-mache "torito" or bull stuffed with fireworks during a nighttime lighting of bull-shaped figures as part of the annual festival honoring Saint John of God, in Tultepec, Mexico, Friday, March 8, 2024. The celebration, now its 35th year, pays homage to the patron saint of the poor and sick, St. John of God, who the fireworks' producers view as a protective figure. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Residents push a giant paper-mache “torito” or bull stuffed with fireworks during a nighttime lighting of bull-shaped figures as part of the annual festival honoring Saint John of God, in Tultepec, Mexico, Friday, March 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

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Marco Ugarte has been a photographer based in Mexico City for over 30 years. He covered the fireworks festival in nearby Tultepec for just the second time a week ago.

Aiming to show the artisans’ passion and dedication for the dangerous art of making fireworks, Ugarte was given training in safety and respect for the pyrotechnics before he aimed his camera on the explosive party.

Here is what he said in Spanish about the experience to Deputy Director of Global Photography Enric Marti.

Why this photo

The artisans of the fireworks industry in Tultepec, Mexico, every year during the first week of March, pay tribute to the patron saint of the poor and sick, Saint John of God, with a festival in which they light papier-mâché bulls filled with pyrotechnics. The makers of fireworks see Saint John of God as a protective figure.

This photo is part of a story we did in the nearby village of San Juan, known for the production of pyrotechnics.

We connected with the Cortes family and documented how they prepared their giant bulls on wooden and metal structures, and how they prepared and mixed the gunpowder to make the sparklers.

The artisans work day-by-day amid volatile gunpowder. Accidents are not uncommon. In 2018, a huge and devastating explosion occurred at the workshops where 25 people died and at least 49 were injured.

What I tried to show in the story is the makers’ devotion to what they love: their art, their patron saint, their craftsmanship, their bulls and the passion of their lives: “the pyrotechnics.” This photo summarizes all that in one image.

How I made this photo

First, I spent four days learning about the art and love that artisans have for pyrotechnics - and about the consequences of an explosion.

We were schooled in the dangers of unintended explosions - the burns and the impact a firecracker can have on your body or eyes.

For protection, we wore ear buds and cotton clothes soaked in water. We were told to cover our eyes with swimming goggles or a gas mask, to wear a helmet or cap and to carry a wet towel.

In case of an accident: run.

And, very importantly, carry a small fire extinguisher.

Always remember that in dangerous situations like these, you are not alone, someone will help you, but you must always be ready to assist others who need your help.

After going over safety protocols and preparing for the event, I was ready to take my photo. Camera in hand, using a 16-35mm lens, I adjusted the shutter speed (4000/sec), aperture (f5.6), ISO (2000), and took off running after the paper bull and the fireworks to find the light and capture a good photo.

Why the photo works

This photo tries to document in one image a culture deeply rooted in the Mexican traditions of folk art.

More than 300 paper bulls and thousands of residents and artisans dance in the town square in harmony with the giant bulls filled with fireworks that release colorful pyrotechnic lights, while everyone runs and shouts, “Ole, ole! Fire, fire! Ole, ole!”

Amid lots of drinking and plenty of fireworks, the bulls continued burning until dawn.

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