Melanie Pullen

by flaunt

Fotografiar La Santa Muerte
Renowned photographer Melanie Pullen carved a space for her work with elaborate visions and self-taught talent, guided by intuition rather than instruction. That’s also how she found herself in Mexico City with a knife blade pressed to her jugular. Here, she tells how the photos featured herein came to be, under the omnipresence of Sante Muerte.

In 2005, I heard rumors of a religion in Mexico City that forgave murderers and criminals. I was told there was a “church of criminals” where a rogue priest waits to forgive all your sins. The name of this religion was Santa Muerte: its literal translation is the Dead Saint or Holy Death, one who looks hauntingly similar to the Grim Reaper.

When I began researching the religion of Santa Muerte, people in the know shrugged, saying its primary shrines were located in an area where I would definitely be killed or, at best, kidnapped if I attempted to visit.

It was, after all, Tepito, the most infamous and deadly barrio in Mexico City. Tepito is a place where criminals have absolute control and police don’t dare venture. It’s one of the most dangerous places on earth.

I knew I had to get into this place. I had to document it and see it for myself.

To infiltrate this area I attempted to hire off-duty federal officers and policemen to accompany me for protection. All but one refused. He had rules: He would not drive his official car or wear his uniform. Without question, he explained, he would be murdered if he showed any signs of being a police officer. He said I had to hide in the back of his car and my photos had to be quick. We had to get in and get out because they would know I was an outsider. My blonde hair, fair skin, and massive cherry-red Hasselblad camera in tow allowed for easy assumptions.

On this journey I captured some of the most meaningful images of my life. Peaceful photos of a place in torment. They feel oddly quiet.

Despite offers of art shows and book deals, I have never shown these images in public. They still remain very personal to me.

During the trip, there were many bizarre and terrifying incidents; I was shot at, held at knifepoint, and nearly kidnapped. Eventually these events led me to leave Mexico City.

The day I entered Tepito I fully understood why war journalists love their profession—it makes living far more gratifying.

It was a rush I will never forget, and one that I am happy to have as nothing more than a distant memory.