Cade Martin Tempts an Old Legend in "Island of the Dolls"

Cade Martin is not one to shy away from the bizarre, imaginary or superstitious. He believes that if you never move beyond your comfort zone, you will never find the beauty that can come from the unfamiliar. It’s this willingness to go into uncharted waters that clients admire and seek out for their projects. Cade’s interest in stories and unique narratives paired with his limitless imagination pulled him to explore the legend of the Xochimilco canal in Mexico.

Not only has Cade mastered creating imagery that pulls us into his imagination, but he is also a great storyteller. We wanted to share Cade’s telling of this project and how this story inspired him. We thought today, Día de los Muertos was the perfect opportunity to bring light to this legend. Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead in English, is a holiday celebrated primarily in Mexico, where people celebrate and honor the lives of loved ones. This legend honors a young girl’s spirit and a man who spent his life trying to appease this young girl’s spirit, which exemplifies the essence of the holiday.

“I have always loved a good story, with great characters and the opening sentence
'Legend has it…'
These are stories to tell around the campfire, to pass along and keep alive – but some stories, I’ve just got to see for myself. The Island of the Dolls is such a tale.

Legend has it, a little girl drowned entangled among the lilies of the Xochimilco canal. Her body was found on the banks of one of the islands by Don Julian Santana Barrera.

Julian was the caretaker of the island and, shortly thereafter, he found a doll floating nearby and, assuming it belonged to the deceased girl, hung it from a tree as a sign of respect to support the spirit of the girl. After this, he began to hear whispers, footsteps, and anguished wails in the darkness even though his hut – hidden deep inside the woods of Xochimilco – was miles away from civilization.

Driven by fear, he spent the next fifty years hanging more and more dolls, some missing body parts, all over the island in an attempt to appease what he believed to be the drowned girl’s spirit.

After 50 years of collecting dolls and hanging them on the island, Julian was found dead in 2001, reportedly found in the exact spot where he found the girl’s body fifty years before.”

What did you learn on this project?

Other than the fact that my wife says that I may or may not have unleashed a curse by going to the Island of the Dolls, I am reminded that I love a great adventure. It’s something I’m always happy to relearn. 

I grew up reading Tintin, and Tintin adventures are what I always wanted to have. As a kid, comics took me everywhere and the lack of boundaries was and has been very inspirational. As an adult the camera has been my passport, chasing characters and stories is something I inherently do.

What is a memorable moment?

The memorable moment was originally simply reading about the Island of the Dolls, it was so strange/creepy/riveting/surreal that it immediately had its hooks in me and I knew I had to go. 

The kernel of one personal project can inspire and inform the next. I file all of it under my continuing education and when I find a subject that I want to know more about, I jump in and see where it will take me, what I will learn about myself and from those that I meet along the way.

What would you like people to take away after seeing your work?

Many of my personal images happen as the result of a habit I have of seizing on an opportunity or stumbling into something that I’ve heard about or want to know more about. 

As for all of my personal projects, I really do the work for myself.  I’m happy if people enjoy the work but I do the work selfishly. That’s not to say that I don’t want people to see it, and I have to admit that I was more than a little curious how people were going to react to this series of images from Isla de las Muñecas. As with any great story, you want to know more, I wanted these images to invoke that same curiosity and sense of adventure.

Follow Cade on Instagram to see more imagery created from chasing characters and stories, and finding beauty in the unfamiliar.