Emilio Espejel is an independent press photographer based in Mexico City. His work revolves around social issues such as migration and human rights, as well as subjects like travel and festivals. His photographs have appeared in Fusion Network, Vice Magazine, and many more.

In his latest photo collection, Emilio dives into Mexico’s pyrotechnic culture, including one of the country’s largest firework festivals. To learn more about the traditions of this culture and discover how he photographed such an explosive atmosphere, we caught up with Emilio.

What is National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec, Mexico?

The week-long festival celebrates the town’s biggest industry, pyrotechnics (a.k.a. fireworks). Bull-like structures, made out of wood, metal, and paper, are paraded the streets while colorful explosions go off around them. It honors San Juan de Dios (the patron saint of fireworks), as well as the hard work of Tultepec’s residents.

What does the National Pyrotechnic Festival mean to the people of Tultepec?

This festival is all about identity and tradition. 60 percent of the municipality’s population is involved in firework production, and almost everyone has a relative who died in an accident related to pyrotechnics. The celebrations also seems cathartic. These people are able to release a mixture of discontent, anger, and aggressiveness they would have otherwise kept bottled up. Celebrating their explosive creations gives them a sense of pride and purpose. 

What sparked your interest in the event?

Tultepec is known as the capital of fireworks in Mexico. My interest began after the 2016 tragedy that took place in the firework market of San Pablito. Each year, hundreds of people are injured during the festival. My interest revolved around the residents’ ability to continue celebrating despite these potentially lethal dangers. Some of them say that being a fireworks craftsman is in their blood — after witnessing the event, I understand what they mean.

As a photographer, were there any obstacles you had to overcome?

At first, I didn’t want to get too close. I was nervous about getting injured. There are people running from exploding fireworks, and it’s extremely loud. But, as time passed, I forced myself to push aside the fear and approach my subjects.

Technically speaking, lighting was crucial to creating these images. With so much adrenaline moving through me, it was hard to find a consistent ISO that worked. The more I shot, though, the more I fell into the festival’s rhythm, which allowed my instincts to take over. I found composing shots easier once I felt absorbed by the atmosphere.

What emotions do you want these photos to invoke in your audience?

I wanted to portray that the chaos has a personality and an order to it. To some, chaos can look ugly and disorganized. But to me, there’s beauty in it. I wanted to present Tultepec in that light. In general, though, I was trying to express my perception of reality.

What’s your biggest takeaway from the festival?

Happening in such close proximity to tragedy, the festival showed me what community looks like in the face of suffering. These people celebrated as if they had nothing left to lose. I let myself be carried away by that collective way of thinking. In a way, it was euphoric.

To view more of Emilio’s work, follow him on Instagram.

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Brad Donaldson is a writer and editor proudly based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Although his roots are in Canada, his desire to see more of the world frequently takes him away from home. His work, both as an editor and writer, has appeared in local newspapers and publications.