Vanessa Rufli and Anthony Cerasoli planned a romantic August 18 wedding on remote Isla Holbox, a small island located seven miles off the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. Settled by 19th-century pirates and known more for fishing than tourism, Isla Holbox was just the type of off-the-beaten-path location that the two Phoenix architects wanted for their destination wedding, which they dubbed “Mission Mexico.” They posted a web site, had Mission Mexico T-shirts printed for their guests, and hired Atlanta-based WPJA member Matt Adcock to be their wedding photojournalist.
But on the day of the wedding, Mission Mexico turned into an evacuation mission. Dean, a category 5 hurricane, was headed for the Yucatán Peninsula and the Mexican government ordered a mandatory evacuation. Instead of exchanging vows, the bride and groom, along with their 33 guests, waded through roiling surf, holding their luggage overhead, to get to a boat moored just off shore. Lightning slashed the black sky and torrential rain pelted them as the boat raced toward the small town of Chiquila. The wedding party was on the run.
The third most powerful Atlantic hurricane to ever hit land since record keeping began in the 1850s, Hurricane Dean packed winds exceeding 165 miles per hour. It was so massive that NASA ordered the space shuttle Endeavour back to Earth a day early to avoid it. Already in Mexico, Matt Adcock knew the projected path of the hurricane by Friday, August 17. He was scheduled to shoot another wedding the following Tuesday in Tulum, Mexico, located on the Riviera Maya south of Cancun. However, he felt uneasy about the storm and decided to book a flight home on Sunday just in case. A round trip coach ticket from Cancun to Atlanta usually runs roughly $400 to $700. This one-way ticket cost $1,400.
Friday evening Adcock grabbed his photo gear and headed to the airport to pick up fellow wedding photographer, Sergio Lopez of Tucson, AZ, who was a second shooter for Anthony and Vanessa’s wedding. By the time the two got to the small town of Chiquila the last ferry was gone. While they waited for a water taxi to take them to the island, a woman approached and asked in Spanish, “Are you crazy? There’s a hurricane coming!” But they had a job to do, although they did not know if the wedding would happen or not. As they sped toward the dark island, Adcock and Lopez agreed that no matter what happened on Saturday they would document events as they unfolded.
A gray Saturday morning brought news that everyone on the island was ordered by the government to leave. On the mainland, tens of thousands of tourists and residents were evacuating the coast. Lopez worried about the safety of the island residents, fearing that the island might be washed away.
Several members of the wedding party surfed the Internet to find accommodations inland. With the help of the hotel manager, they found an inn with 17 rooms available in a small town in central Yucatán called Valladolid. The bride arranged for a boat to ferry them to Chiquila, where vans would take them to Valladolid. But as they gathered on the beach a nasty storm ahead of the hurricane was brewing, adding to an already ominous atmosphere.
In true photojournalist fashion, Adcock jumped on the computer before leaving the hotel to upload pictures and write about what was happening on his blog, which he continually updated. Afterward he sprinted onto the beach where he saw the wedding party fording the surf to get to the boat. “I couldn’t believe it,” Adcock says of the scene. He dropped his bags, grabbed his camera and began shooting.
“By the end of the evacuation, the captain was screaming, ‘Let’s go now!’ because the storm was coming,” says Adcock. “I didn’t carry my bags out; the groom did. I was busy shooting. The black cloud was over us by then and it began pouring down rain. Everyone was soaked. My camera gear was in a trash bag.”
Adcock and Lopez kept shooting, even when they got to Chiquila, where water in the street was ankle deep. The deluge continued for nearly an hour. The wedding party joined other people huddled underneath a shelter. The crowd surged and screamed when a bolt of lightning struck a metal pole nearby. “It added to the intensity of the moment,” says Adcock. “We just kept shooting.”
By the time the drenched wedding guests were under way on the two-hour ride to Valladolid, the rain had stopped. “Everyone remained in good spirits though,” says Adcock. “No one had been to Valladolid except me. At 8pm, soon after we had arrived, the father of the bride asked me where he could get dinner for all these people. I pointed to a good restaurant across the square from the hotel where we were staying. Within 10 minutes he had it arranged: dinner for 35 at 8:30. It was like a fairytale.”
Actually, the fairytale was just beginning.
The bride and groom deliberated about when and where to get married. They were discussing a sunrise ceremony in the square when the bride’s sister suggested they get married that night. There was no priest. No preparations had been made. Nevertheless, the bride and groom looked at each other and said, Let’s do it! And they decided to make it a surprise.
Secretly the bridesmaids and groomsmen put on their wedding clothes, while the couple dressed together in their small room. “It was a thrilling moment when they decided to get married that night,” says Lopez, who photographed the couple getting ready, while Adcock photographed the preparations. “It gave me goose bumps. This was the first time I have photographed a couple getting ready in the same room—with their two dogs. Vanessa couldn’t do much with her hair, but she didn’t care. She put on her veil and went. If they had gotten married the next day it would have been disappointing. It was such a happy ending.”
The wedding party was ready within minutes. As the guests filed into the restaurant the father of the bride spied the bridesmaids in their dresses. “He transformed into Mega Man,” says Adcock. “He told everyone to sit down and then he raced to the hotel and grabbed the bride by the arm. He walked her across the street, while the hotel manager stopped traffic. Then he gave a speech and everyone sat down and had dinner.”
Meanwhile an uncle was furiously rewriting his wedding speech to reflect what they all had been through that day. After dinner he delivered the speech in a simple ceremony, which was followed by a cake aflame with birthday candles and presented with flourish by the restaurant staff. “It was the best they could do for a wedding cake on such short notice,” says Adcock. “I didn’t know it was coming. When I turned around it was there and I started shooting. The bride and groom blew out the candles together. It was awesome.”
Even though it was a long and tense day, Adcock relished the adventure, calling it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I took the assignment as a photojournalist, which means I shoot the event as it happens, whatever happens,” says Adcock. “This was the first time I could journal about a wedding day as it was happening. I was following a storyline that wasn’t predictable. These were unprecedented circumstances and I was happy to be able to shoot and write about it. Sergio and I looked at each other about 30 times that day with smiles on our faces. We could not believe it was happening. It was hard work, but we didn’t care. This is what photojournalists do. We were running on adrenaline.”
While many in the wedding party left on Sunday, including Lopez and Adcock (whose Tuesday wedding in Tulum was canceled), Vanessa and Anthony remained in Mexico and rode out the storm when it hit the Yucatán Peninsula early Tuesday morning. They made it through safely. Adcock and Lopez still shake their heads in wonder at Vanessa. After all, Adcock points out, this scenario is a bride’s worst nightmare. Says Lopez, “I was amazed by her. She was so calm and cool, the epitome of the qualities you want to see in a bride. Vanessa was such a pillar of strength that it blew me away.”
Adcock and Lopez had not met in person before Veronica and Anthony’s wedding. The next time they see each other will be in December when Lopez returns to the Mayan Riviera to photograph the December wedding of Adcock and fellow WPJA member Sol Tamargo. Fortunately hurricane season ends in November.
—by Lorna Gentry for the Wedding Photojournalism Association