Some years ago, wanting to know more about the various cultures that have enriched this nation, I set out to document ethnic celebrations in New York City. I photographed festivals, fairs, and folk troupes and ran up and down the avenue at every parade Through these events I came to know people who allowed me to photograph family gatherings at holidays--private affairs, not meant for public consumption. Occasionally I photographed weddings.
After some time I came to believe that weddings which keep traditions represent ethnic cultures in their purest forms. Weddings are true celebrations of cultural identity. Their ceremony and pageantry display religious, regional and family traditions for kin and community, Therefore, for the past five years I have been traveling farther afield to document the ethnic and religious traditions attendant to getting married. As I fly about the country, I also look for regional variations.
At no other time do we think so much of who we are and what we want as when making plans for a wedding. We keep traditions because they provide historical continuity in a changing world. Since traditions come from many diverse homelands, photographing ethnic weddings affords me the excitement of traveling abroad while remaining in the U.S.
Imagine shouldering photographic paraphernalia and riding the subway thirty minutes to the Bronx to photograph an Albanian American wedding at which I will spend more than twelve hours in a culture where only Geg is spoken. Imagine the bride, splendidly arrayed in a white wedding dress and veil. At a private family gathering, her youngest brother places a shoe on her foot and a representative of the groom puts a ring on her finger. She does not smile; instead, she weeps, Before the church ceremony her own family solemnly surrenders her to the groom's family and goes home. Only the woman designated as her matron of honor, a relative of the groom, will accompany her to church and to the wedding reception.
After a Roman Catholic rite (a minority of Albanians are Roman Catholic) the couple sign the marriage license and the bride accompanies her husband to his family reception, Imagine her spending the next hours at the banquet table, not with him at her side but with her matron of honor. She neither eats nor drinks. She sits looking straight before her, standing at intervals in respect for those who offer toasts or songs to her, but otherwise seemingly oblivious of 500 guests rejoicing in her marriage. The celebrants dine and drink in her honor, and dance, but no one raps spoons on glasses for a kiss because the groom isn't in evidence. He remains behind the scene, reappearing about midnight when they cut the cake. Sometimes the couple will then take a few dance steps together, after which the newlyweds, who have never dated, will leave for their new home.
At this point I pack my gear and leave to catch the subway back to Manhattan. I look around the train at my fellow passengers and suddenly feel like an alien in my own country. I'm still so much infused with Albanian culture that I'm mildly surprised to hear English exchanged. I muse over what I have seen and heard and consider what lies ahead for the bride.
The next day the groom's relatives and friends will bring gifts to the newlyweds, but she will not see or speak to her family until days or weeks later when they bring her home for a visit. Back in the house where she grew up, she will now be treated formally, never again as a family member. She and her husband had never communicated prior to the wedding though they had noticed each other at community gatherings and he had asked her parents for her hand. Nevertheless, like those American brides who marry for love, she will look back on her wedding day as wonderful, prizing both the videotape and the tearful photographs of herself. Rarely does an Albanian American marriage come apart.
The Albanian Americans in the Bronx, enormously successful American citizens, hold fast to the cultural traditions threatened in their (now communist) homeland, because they affirm their cultural identity and uphold their community. Although not all weddings wi a ere to custom as strictly as the one just described-the bride's family takes great pride in their eminent forebears, patriots still remembered in Albania-similar celebrations do take place elsewhere in the U.S.
For me, finding weddings which preserve ethnic traditions is a constant challenge, since the typical Western-style wedding has been so widely adopted. Many of those which do keep their customs often do so to reaffirm ties to the homeland. Others, like some Afro-Americans, are reinventing traditions already lost, incorporating African tribal customs into the contemporary American marriage ceremony. Many recent Asian immigrants adapt their traditions to accommodate life here-where often they are without family members to advise them and without proper foods and utensils.
Some religious traditions such as Hindu, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Hasidic and Christian Orthodox are so strong that they survive, with minor modifications, in America. In contrast, other religious traditions have evolved in response to new needs. Today, for example, Asian-Americans who traditionally in their homelands celebrated marriage principally as a contract between families, now often marry in a Buddhist ceremony-even though traditional Buddhism has never sanctified marriage.
My photographs become memories of events, but still photographs have their limitations. They can never convey the vigor of Lubavitcher Hasidic weddings, where the guests play an important role in performing a mitzvah (good deed) to gladden the chosen (groom) and the kallah (bride). An explosion of joyous music announces the groom and the bride, carried into the reception on chairs to the men's or women's side of the dividing mestiza, while the guests greet them by pressing around, jumping up, and waving. Segregating the sexes seems to make everyone dance with more abandon. On the men's side, one may set fire to his hat or balance a bottle on his forehead. On the women's side, the bride may hold a parasol with ribbons while her girl friends dance around her or she may jump a rope of knotted table napkins without removing her heels. The strong-armed raise the groom on a table, while the bride stands on another (or is again raised in a chair); they are pelted with napkins as they look at each other over the divider.
A still photograph will not capture the most important part of a Greek ceremony when the chanting priest leads the bride and groom around the ritual table three times, perhaps stopping long enough to ask under his breath if they will go the final round. The couple, who have made no vows, will be married after that round of the table, which bears a Bible in an ornate gold cover, the silver cup from which the couple shared wine, and usually a plate of sugar-coated almonds representing fertility.
A photograph cannot describe such unforeseen incidents as the small ritual fire in a Hindu ceremony that set off the smoke alarm one Sunday in the rented town hall. Everyone ignored the siren, even the loudspeakers advising us to walk, not run, to the nearest exit until the fire engine drew up and the ceremony was interrupted long enough to explain that the hall was not ablaze.
A photograph will never reveal the elaborate preparations often made to get a picture. For a Satmar Hasidic wedding I bought a cheap brown wig so that my gray head (the only one in the hall) would not draw attention among the bewigged women and the sable-hatted men. I stayed in the background until almost dawn to get a single photograph-the mitzvah dance when the bride and groom finally come together within a close circle of family and community elders. They hold hands but do not look at each other. It is a supremely spiritual moment. I stood on a chair at some distance and at the decisive moment felt the wig slip off my head and down my back. Knotting more tightly my remaining hair covering, a kerchief, I shot three frames, one of which shows their clasped hands. For me the wedding was over. Without looking for my hairpiece, I fled.
Admittedly, black-and-white photography can never do justice to some ethnic weddings. it doesn't show the red saris of Asian Indian brides, the shining gold and brass, the glittery tinsel, the colors of ritual foods, or the bright fabrics worn in other Asian weddings, ritually changed during the course of the wedding day. But I believe that black and white captures better the form and emotional content of the event. Color, in seducing the eye, often obscures picture content and dilutes impact.
Wanting to participate in the wedding celebration while trying to remain unobtrusive I photograph in black and white. Quality black and white is easier for me to achieve without extra equipment than is color. I work without assistants, and whenever possible without extra strobe lights, preferably without flash.
Photographing ethnic weddings has brought me insight into others' lives as well as a few surprises. I didn't know what to expect when I traveled to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to photograph a Cambodian-Vietnamese wedding. As instructed, I arrived at 8:00 A.M. at a tiny attached house jammed with people. Upstairs the happy bride was being wrapped in rich silks and adorned with jewelry by the "dresser" who had brought raiment for her and the groom. But later, downstairs during the preliminary ceremony, at a symbolic haircutting meant to drive away evil spirits, she seemed so downcast that I wanted to catch her attention and coax a smile. Not until after the wedding when the couple was sitting on a bed upstairs, the brunt of a woman jokingly trying to persuade them to share a single grape on a toothpick, (they finally agreed to a banana!) did I realize that their union had been arranged. Although the groom had visited the bride several times with friends, until this moment they had never spoken, or touched, or even acknowledged each other.
We proceeded to a Christian church service and a reception in the church hall, during which the couple joined in Cambodian circle dancing, always returning to sit with their own friends of the same sex. Then, at 7:00 o'clock that evening as I was packing to leave, I heard the guests begin to clap and cheer. The newlyweds had moved into each other's arms to dance. Only now did I understand the reasons for three-day weddings abroad and an all-day event in America: the bride and groom need to become accustomed to each other. They, who had refused the grape on the toothpick that morning, would climb into that same bed together some time after midnight.
These photographs are only random glimpses, but as records of moments in time, they are my witnesses. I was there, and this is what I saw.
Katrina Thomas is a free-lance photographer based in New York City who has produced several books and has published in national magazines.