Inside the world’s most explosive festival
Mexico City’s National Pyrotechnic Festival is far from your average celebration. Photographer Dan Medhurst found out the hard way when he got up close - sometimes too close - to this insane, incendiary event.
Two or three years ago, I came across this video that someone had filmed on their phone. It was all shaky and out of focus but I thought: “It looks pretty wild”. It was just mushroom clouds of smoke and explosions and kids running around with their tops off screaming. I'd been shooting a load of festival stuff for my friend Noah Ball, who organises Outlook and Dimensions festivals in Croatia, and I wanted to broaden that. I wanted to go and shoot some other events that weren't strictly music festivals.
I knew very little about the event before I went.
There’s a small, family-run Facebook page but there's not a huge amount of info, and it’s all in Spanish. I was using Google Translate to write messages. They said: 'Si amigo! This is when it's going on, come and visit us, you will be our friend and our welcome guest'. The event is all to celebrate their local industry. It’s in a rundown suburb of the city called Tultepec, where there are four fireworks factories. Apparently most of the fireworks they use on 4th July in the US are made in that part of Mexico City. It’s a long way off the usual tourist trail though. It’s about an hour on a train away from the centre of the city and then a bus journey on top of that. There’s a town square, a church and a bandstand set up at one end of the town square, but otherwise there’s nothing really there.
I went with my American friend Ariella and her boyfriend Orlando. I was out in LA for a shoot and once the job was done I said to them: “Do you fancy coming to this festival with me, this crazy firework festival where it looks like the end of the world?” They were like: “Hell yes dude, let's do this!” We booked flights the following day.
Mexico City is beautiful.
The reputation that it has is that there’s gang violence, and you read about the drug cartels, but I never felt threatened. It helped that Orlando is originally from Ecuador, so he has fluent Spanish, but it was pretty easy to get around as a tourist. We took a day trip out to these incredible Mayan pyramids to the north-east - actually the same direction as Tultepec.
When we first walked into that part of the city I was a little bit nervous. That’s probably because I was deliberately walking into the path of fireworks! It was fine, but quite nerve-wracking. Ariella stood on the church wall on the edge of the square while Orlando and I went in. I was really glad he was with me because my heart was going like crazy. He was saying: “I've got your back man, let's do this!” Each local family make a bull - or they club together with other families to make an even bigger bull - and they’re giant creatures on metal frames with wheels. The bulls are made out of papier maché, all hand-painted and really beautifully crafted. When they line them up there must be three or four hundred of them. They pack them with fireworks, set fire to them and then they run at the crowd.
It's a big macho thing to see who can stay in front of the bulls and get the closest for the longest. There’s zero health and safety. As the night goes on people get more drunk and more rowdy and it gets more deadly. All the kids are chanting "Fuego, fuego, fuego!" Getting the photos was difficult - I was pretty glad I was there from the beginning, with the first bull. It started off quiet but it got busier and busier. By the end it was really hard to get shots because there were so many people - drunk people staggering into each other in the darkness.
Also, once the bulls are going you can't really see much. There's just like a wall of fire, and sparks hitting you. There's so much smoke in the air you can barely breath or see anything and there's just this constant deafening noise of rockets screaming and whizzing past you. It felt like a constant bombardment. You’re getting hit by smaller firecrackers and I got hit in the head by a big rocket. One rocket hit me in the shin and nearly knocked me straight off my feet.
In between bulls you would look around and catch your breath.
I didn't speak the same language as everyone but people would give you a nod as if to say: “Wow, this is a bit crazy isn't it?” And I'd be like: “Yeah, just a bit!” It was crazy - just absolute mayhem, definitely one of the most crazy things I've ever shot. But it was so worth it. The atmosphere was like nothing else.
If anyone wants to do it? I’d say get fireproof clothing.
Honestly, definitely get eye protection and get something that will cover your face like a balaclava, a flame-retardant balaclava. I spent $120 on fireproof clothing - I had gloves, a balaclava and those massive safety glasses. Oh, and maybe some padded clothing - when the rockets hit you, they hit you pretty hard.
The wall of fire and the sparks look really insane in the photos but they’re not that bad, it's when the rockets hit you that it hurts. For all that though, some of the local guys were just there with their tops off - they’re pretty crazy in Mexico City! Words and photos by Dan Medhurst