Sam Gregg Photos of the followers of Mexico’s Santa Muerte religion

Cover Image - Sam Gregg
WordsBruno Bayley

Over the last two decades, veneration of Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte (Our Lady of Holy Death), more commonly referred to simply as Santa Muerte, has exploded in Mexico. Bruno Bayley speaks to photographer Sam Gregg, who has spent two years photographing the religion’s adherents in Mexico City’s Tepito neighborhood, a bastion of Santa Muerte worship, for his project “La Flaquita.”

Condemned by the Catholic church, which dismisses it as a cult, Santa Muerte is often associated in the media with Mexico’s narcos, but is–according to some–the fastest growing new religion in the world. A personification of death associated with protection and healing, Santa Muerte is most commonly depicted as a skeletal figure in women's clothing, her image lovingly represented in the form of statues and icons.

Every first of the month there’s a procession in Tepito, known as one of the more dangerous areas of Mexico City. “It’s incredible…mind boggling,” says photographer Sam Gregg. “Thousands of devotees walk down this small street with their statues, with offerings of flowers, sweets, tequila, marijuana, tobacco. They walk to the Tepito shrine to Santa Muerte, the very first that popped up in the city in 2001, many of them crawling on their knees so that they end up bloodied by the time they arrive.” During the procession itself the atmosphere is, according to Gregg, incredibly serious. But once the procession is complete the somber tone is replaced by a carnivalesque atmosphere.

Gregg first came across these processions after arriving in Mexico City in 2020, hoping to enjoy the comparative freedom that the nation’s relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offered. Taken to Tepito by a friend knowledgeable about the new religious movement of Santa Muerte, Gregg himself was in the dark. “My way of working is very instinctive. I almost intentionally try to arrive somewhere having done as little research as possible. It sounds ignorant and lazy, but I actually think it’s a very good method for achieving honest results. You go into these environments without any prejudice whatsoever and what you experience is the reality.”

It’s certainly plausible that some people might have tried to dissuade Gregg from photographing Tepito’s Santa Muerte believers. “The things you read about Santa Muerte, its connections to the narcos for example, it has a very negative reputation, especially in the mainstream media,” Gregg explains. “As they say, ‘fear is the mind killer’, and if I had listened to the fearmongering mainstream media over the past decade then this project as well as others in Napoli and Bangkok would have never happened. But, with that being said, I would still only advise going to Tepito with a local or someone who knows the area well.”

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On his second attempt at shooting, Gregg erected a white backdrop “almost in the centre of the procession”, which turned out to be unpopular, with the local local bosses from the area politely, or not so politely, telling them to leave immediately.

It was on the third attempt that Gregg hit upon a winning approach. Shooting from 8am to 6pm, he would scour the procession for subjects who, through a local fixer, he’d ask to come with him to a small garage space he’d secured close to the procession route. “I’d photograph them there, where we had more control,” he says. “It was quiet, tranquil.”

To date, Gregg has photographed five of these processions, his portraits of the faithful forming the project “La Flaquita,” meaning the “The Skinny One,” one of many nicknames for Santa Muerte. Finding the best approach to photographing in this often hectic setting was a matter of trial and error. “The first time I went I photographed people in the procession, but the problem with photographing amongst thousands of people is that the images are very messy. I'm not a street photographer, I'm a portrait photographer. I try to keep my images as clean as possible. So that didn’t work.” 

In spite of the often negative depictions of Santa Muerte and its followers in the media, Gregg found Tepito a joyful place to work. Polaroids were taken and given to those he photographed, (a small gesture and one that he learned from watching a documentary on Stefan Ruiz’s project “Cholombianos,” another inspiration for the project), but even at the initial point of approaching subjects Gregg found people incredibly open and friendly. “I’d say photographing people in London, maybe three or four out of ten people I ask say yes. In Napoli, maybe it’s eight. In Tepito it was more like nine and a half out of ten.” By way of acknowledging his outsider’s perspective–as well as the debt he owes to the generosity of his subjects–Gregg plans to pass a percentage of the project’s proceeds back to one of the many charities that work in Mexico City, specifically areas such as Tepito. 

 “[The followers of Santa Muerte] were incredibly proud and joyful,” he says. “They seemed happy that someone was exploring their religion, which so far has largely been brushed under the carpet, or has been shown in a negative light.” Gregg’s work has often focused on outsiders and the marginalized, and to him the project’s a clear extension of this interest.

Gregg is fascinated by societies, individuals and communities that he feels are either misrepresented or misunderstood. “One of my aims within photography is to show that whatever you read in the news, whatever people say, the reality is often so far removed from it,” he explains. “I never had a negative experience in Tepito. Even guys who told me they had been in jail, done bad things, been deported…they were incredibly respectful. I think that’s partly down to their often newfound veneration for Santa Muerte.” 

“The beautiful thing about Santa Muerte is that [its followers] have zero prejudice against anybody. Your color, race, background, past—they don’t care. What's really interesting for example is that a lot of Mexico City’s transgender population follow Santa Muerte. At the processions you see a lot of members of the LGBTQ community, people who are religious but have been rejected or at least felt shunned by the Catholic church. They have found a home in Santa Muerte. To me that’s beautiful.”