Sunday, June 10, 2007

Middle passage

Those of you who pay attention to my photography may wonder why I haven’t shown any work lately. The reason is that I am taking a seaon off. For the past five years or so, I have shot the same events: The Cherry Blossom Festival at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Memorial Day and Fourth of July at Coney Island, Chinese New Year, the Jouvert parade, and the Middle Passage Ceremony. Now I’m going to attend these events simply as a participant.

A large part of the reason I'm taking time off is because I genuinely dislike photographers, especially here in New York. The Mermaid Day parade is the most egregious example. There are 10 photographers for every participant and by the end of the day everyone is pretty much traumatized, especially the scantily clad women. And if I were the type who got dressed up and paraded around, or performed a sacred ceremony, in public, I wouldn’t want assholes sticking their cameras in my face. For me to photograph these events, I have to believe that I am serving a larger purpose. I have to believe that my artistic rendering of these events will serve as an important record of a special time and place. Of course there are thousands of photographers at the Mermaid parade or Chinese New Year and a few of them do work as good or better than my own, but I am just about the only serious photographer who attends the Jouvert parade or the Middle Passage Ceremony. I hope it proves important that I have recorded these events.

Yesterday was the Middle Passage Ceremony and that was my first real test. I was at Coney Island on Memorial Day, but this year it was no different than any other weekend, and the light wasn’t good, so not taking photographs didn’t bother me in the least. Last evening, however, the light was beautiful and so was the ceremony and it hurt, really hurt, to leave the images to the ether. And for long stretches I was working as a photographer, though without a camera, anyway. Framing shots. Noting the ceremony’s progress. Identifying photogenic participants from the past and remembering them for the future.

But I was alternately able to drop that baggage and absorb the spirit of the event.

The Middle Passage Ceremony is to remember the African slaves who died during the transport to the new world. Participants dress in white, wade out in the surf, throw flowers, then walk backwards away from the beach. There is a lot of drumming and dancing before, during and after the ceremony. The flower throwing part is a solemn affair. A few people seem to experience religious ecstasy. Many of the images are incredibly beautiful.

This year my wife and young son came along. We’d noticed the event our first year in New York but didn’t know what it was. We heard the African drums and saw people dressed in white walking backwards from the surf, but there were few of them then. The drumming and walking backwards creeped out my wife. She thought it was some kind of voodoo ceremony.

The event has been growing exponentially. Now there is stage area with a PA system and many chairs up on the boardwalk and I’d guess three hundred or so people. We set down a sheet off to the side and sipped wine until the festivities moved down to the water. My wife was still creeped out a bit by the drums and ceremony. She knows quite a bit about central African secret societies and thought she recognized elements from one of them. Although this is an American thing, it’s not a farfetched possibility that it has real roots in Africa.

My son, however, totally got into the spirit of the event. He’s eight years old and they teach modern dance at his school. He was moving in and out of the crowd, jumping up and down in the surf, doing his Martha Graham and Bill T. Jones interpretive moves. I had to laugh like hell until I noticed a little Mark Morris seep into his choreography. I hit him with a small rock to put an end to that.

As is not unusual, sharing a bottle of wine with my wife meant that she had a glass and I drank the rest of the bottle, so I was feeling pretty good by the time the ceremony was over. My son, we’ll call him John Bob, wanted to go on a ride so we said goodbye to the wife and stayed in Coney Island. I had a beer while he went on the Saturn 6, then we went and saw the freak show where I had five more.

If you’ve never been to the Coney Island Freak Show, I strongly recommend it. The acts aren’t that great, but it’s a hokey good time, plus it’s a nice place to get out of the sun or the rain and the amusement park din and have a cold Heineken. My dirty little secret is that I have a crush on Insectivora. Insectivora is a totally tatooed woman who eats insects and fire. John Bob was getting bored by the time the freaks were into the third rotation of their acts, but I couldn’t tear myself away from Insectivora. And when I did finally stumble back out to the Coney Island night, I was feeling pretty high.

John Bob wanted some cotton candy, so I bought him a bag. There were three large balls of it, blue, yellow and pink. He ate the blue and I ate the yellow and pink. Somehow, the thin wisps of spun sugar made me ravenous. I bought us a corn dog and french fries, but that only made me more hungry. I ate a hamburger, then a gyro, clams on the half shell, fried shrimp, fried chicken, a regular slice, a slice with pepperoni, then sausage and peppers, a brochette, a candy apple, a caramel apple, and three boxes of popcorn. My stomach would not fill but my body began to grow, 7 feet, ten feet, twenty, then thirty feet, I waddled down the boardwalk eating small children, teenagers, pretty girls, fat girls and gnarly old women. Then, and I don’t know to say this politely, I hurled and passed out on the beach.

Um, dad, said John Bob, kicking me in the head. Shouldn’t we go home now?

Thus ended another typical day at Coney Island.