Having a devil of a time: Will Sanders’ photographic celebration of Mexico’s Day of the Dead

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The Independent Culture

Dress up one child bride of Frankenstein, add a smattering of skeletons and several pint-sized Satans and what do you get? At first glance, it's a devilishly well-dressed Halloween party. But All-Hallows Eve doesn't have a monopoly on celebrating the supernatural: Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is Mexico's raucous yet poignant annual remembrance of lost friends and relatives, set over the first two days of November – and British photographer Will Sanders has been shooting it for the past three years.

"I first went with my wife to see the festival in Mexico City, in 2006," says Sanders. "We loved the imagery, the bright-coloured orange-flower murals around the town, people out burning myrrh, and in particular the wonderfully evocative – though less traditional – supernatural-themed costumes worn by some of the kids."

The customary celebrations see friends and families across the country – particularly in the south – gather for picnics ' at the gravesides of lost loved ones, while makeshift altars are erected at home to honour the dead, piled high with favourite foods, skull-shaped sweets, toys for the spirits of lost children and tequila for the deceased adults. All of which is meant to help guide the dead back to Earth for two memorable, celebratory nights of communing with the spirits.

Over the years, however, a new wave of Western customs from north of the border – along with a collection of pumpkin paraphernalia – have encroached on the customary mix. In the capital, traditional costumes have been supplanted by macabre clown outfits, hairy Cousin Itts (from The Addams Family) and bloodthirsty Draculas.

"Trick or treat" may not be the phrase on their lips – it's actually the creepier-sounding "Me da mi calaverita?" ("Can you give me my little skull?") – but its essence has clearly been incorporated from the more secular festival. "The main area I found these kids in was Zocalo, the main square, and in the Coyoacan neighbourhood," says Sanders. "I loved the atmosphere of it; tonnes of people milling around in outlandish costumes, begging for sweets – they don't go door to door here, so it looks quite surreal."

Some locals have been up in arms at what they see as the gradual smothering of an ancient tradition; parents have sought to ban school plays at the mere sniff of a pumpkin, while in rural areas, Halloween outfits are frowned upon. But just as conquistadors imposed a Catholic perspective on the indigenous population, so Dia de los Muertos is being changed by globalisation. "One picture shows twins, one in a traditional Mexican costume, the other wearing an American costume [bottom row, centre], which is a perfect representation of the evolution of the day here," reflects Sanders.

But if last year's proliferation of countless Michael Jackson-dressed figures – sucking on MJ chocolate lollipops and trick or treating with Thriller-themed candy buckets – says anything, it's that maybe the traditionalists have a point.

To see more of Will Sanders' photography, including a series on Halloween, visit willsbook.com