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Nine Nat Geo Photographers Capture Moments of Disguise

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A masked ball in Frankfurt, Germany, 1998

When I was growing up, Halloween always meant the hunt for the coolest, craziest costume, raiding the neighbors’ houses for candy, and the sticky sugar-high aftermath. Ultimately, it all came down to the mask and to the mystery of who you wanted to be for one night out of the year. Here, nine of our photographers tell us about their mask images, whether wacky, elegant, nonchalant, or truly haunting.—Elizabeth Krist, senior photo editor

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Baining Fire Dance, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea Photograph by David Doubilet

A Baining fire dancer wearing a kavat mask appears from the edge of darkness into a ring of burning embers in Gaulim, located in the Baining Mountains of East New Britain, Papua New Guinea. The hypnotic fire dance ceremony is performed at night, to an orchestra of drums, by tribesmen wearing elaborate masks made of bark cloth and bamboo that are worn only once and destroyed. The dancers move across a stage of fire, kicking up showers of embers to celebrate the natural world, harvests, births, deaths, and rites of passage.—David Doubilet

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Zombies on Halloween. Manila, Philippines, 2013. Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen

I was walking around the staging area for a zombie-themed race, which was delayed for many hours and I believe eventually cancelled. The zombies that were already done up were therefore just hanging around, bored and irritable. When they were given some refreshments, some slightly surreal scenes took place, as the normal diet for an average zombie is human blood not carbohydrate-and-fat-laden potato chips.—Jonas Bendiksen

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Halloween surprise. Times Square, New York City, 2008. Photograph by Chien-Chi Chang

Oblivious to the October cold and Halloween-time spookiness, I had my camera and tripod set up for a picture at Times Square. This ghost appeared from nowhere, and before I realized what was going on, I had already let go of the cable release. That’s how I got my treat on Halloween night in 2008.—Chien-Chi Chang

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Carnaval preparation. Colón, Panama, 1999. Photograph by Alex Webb

In 1999, I was in Panama working for National Geographic to photograph the country in transition as it prepared to take over canal rights from the U.S. the following year. I remember wandering into Colón, a city on Panama’s Caribbean coast. The week before Carnaval, Colón was alive with activity. Families were readying for the elaborate celebration, an event that featured hand-crafted, colorfully painted masks, reflecting the Afro-Panamanian traditions of the Cimarron people, the runaway slaves who defiantly fought the colonial Spanish for many years.

On a side street in Colón, I noticed this child with a black devil mask. As I raised the camera to my eye, another child reached down to grab a red-striped mask from the floor and held it for a moment in front of his face.—Alex Webb

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Masked ball in Frankfurt, Germany, 1998 Photograph by Gerd Ludwig

When I was shooting a story on the Grimm Brothers, this reveler at a ball in Frankfurt caught my eye. Here’s what intrigued me: If you look carefully, you’ll see that the mask depicts his actual face. He never took the mask off, but it really was his face. I used this technique of moving the camera with flash to try to re-create the wild feeling of the dancers twirling around me at the party. It was a very brief encounter. Here I was shooting a story about fairy tales, but there are times when reality can be weirder than imagination.—Gerd Ludwig

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A young woman poses with a bison skull. Photograph by Joel Sartore

Given little warning, my assistant Grace has posed with snowflakes, money, dice, balloons, American flags, cowboy hats, dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, and a live snake crawling across her stomach, in bed. For a murder mystery series, she was both victim and perp, poisoned one day on my living room floor, electrocuting her fiancé with a toaster in my bathtub the next. And so it came as no surprise to her when I asked that she put a bison skull in front of her face on a cold evening in my front yard. Her cute plaid coat hinted at normalcy as cars streamed by, honking occasionally. Now, after eight years in my employ, Grace just told me she’s moving away to start a new life in Oregon. I can’t help but feel somewhat responsible.—Joel Sartore

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German actor Udo Kier Photograph by Martin Schoeller, AUGUST

I loved working with Udo. He might be even crazier than me, up for anything.—Martin Schoeller

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Dogon dancers, Bandiagara Escarpment, Mali, 2002 Photograph by Jimmy Chin

In 2002 I traveled through Mali with friends on one of my first trips to Africa. We were there to climb new routes on the Hand of Fatima, made up of the tallest freestanding sandstone towers in the world. During our drive in, we stopped for several days at the Bandiagara Escarpment, home of the Dogon people, famous for their dance traditions and their homes perched high in the sandstone cliffs. The place felt ancient and raw, as if we had stepped back in time. After several days we were privileged to witness their traditional funeral ritual, or Dama. Intimidated at first, I stood to the side to shoot but slowly moved closer and closer to the action. Soon I was surrounded by the performers, clicking away, hopping up and down and trying not to get run over.—Jimmy Chin

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“Wise Witch,” 1999. Painted buckram mask, circa 1940s, rayon hat. Manufacturer unknown. Photograph by Phyllis Galembo

This image was published in my book Dressed for Thrills: 100 Years of Halloween Costumes and Masquerade. The image was created using a 4×5 view camera, and the lighting combined strobe and light painting with a homemade tool made of vacuum cleaner parts. The magical quality of the lighting allowed the mask to come to life. Throughout my photographic career my work has focused on the spiritual and transformative power of costume and masquerade. Witches are one of earliest style of Halloween costumes, and I titled this “Wise Witch,” since that is the feeling this mask gave me.—Phyllis Galembo

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