I love weddings. I'm in no rush to have one myself (much to the dismay of my Ivoirian friends, who are quick to remind me: "You won't always be young Akissi ..."), but I still really enjoy attending them.
Luckily, Ivoirians seem to really love 1. getting married and 2. inviting anyone to partake in the celebrations.
And thus, within my first month in Abidjan, I found myself invited to a wedding in Grand Bassam. (Correctly) suspecting that Ivoirian weddings would be teeming with color, splendor, music, and food, I was eager to document the experience. So, for the first time since arriving in Abidjan, I resolved to try out my new, snazzy Canon camera.
The wedding day arrives. Debbie, Anna (our Ivoirian friend who got us invited), and I head to the wedding early to help set up. In the midst of turning a street outside the bride's house into a reception space, I unpack my camera. A member of the wedding party sees the camera and approaches me:
Him: That's your camera?
Him: So you're a professional photographer?
Me: Ha ... No, I'm just -
Him: (calling to other members of wedding party) We have a wedding photographer!
Me: Ummm ... I can take some pictures but I'm not exactly -
Him: We have a wedding photographer! This woman! Yeah, her. She said she'd be the wedding photographer! Come with me.
I stare at Debbie, who is amused. Now when I say I've never used this camera before, I mean I've never even put the battery in. I frantically start trying to put the strap on the camera (yeah - I DON'T EVEN KNOW HOW TO PUT THE STRAP ON THE CAMERA YET).
The man then takes me into a room full of other men who are in the middle of an intense discussion. I come to realize that this is a dowry negotiation, aka, a strict "women not allowed" space. Initially, everyone shoos me away ("Get her out! What's a woman doing here?! - Yeah, I wish I knew sir), but upon being introduced as the "wedding photographer," everyone insisted I stay. Apparently the desire to document the day in its entirety mattered more than observing traditional gender rules. That, or being behind a camera renders you a genderless shadow permitted to trail the real humans. Nonetheless, I felt like I was trespassing. Despite being told I could stay, I was acutely aware of how my presence transgressed custom and terrified of unintentionally offending.
I want to take a moment here to acknowledge the question I can already hear on the tips of my friends' and family's tongues: You - Cathryn Peirce - were in the midst of dowry talks and gender exclusive spaces and it inspired deference instead of indignance?! Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is: yes. As opposed as I may be on principle to some of the gender rules I observed that day, the thing of which I was most cognizant was that I was a guest. I was a guest who was graciously invited to join traditions, rituals, and a culture that was not my own, and the only thing I was focused on was being respectful and supportive.
Also let's not pretend American weddings aren't also rife with problematic, gendered rituals. The father symbolically handing off the bride to the new husband? Women automatically taking the man's last name? If I provided a feminist critique at every ceremony I was invited to, I would never see an open bar again.
But back to the story.
Faithful to my assigned duty, I trailed the wedding party throughout the day. The fathers exchanged palm wine. Different elders spoke. The bride was paraded in by the women with a blanket over her head. The women chanted, walked in and out of the room, and then finally presented the bride to the groom. Later still, a ceremony ensued in which the bride and groom poured palm wine on the ground, took the dirt, rubbed it on their stomachs, and then embraced. Over the course of these processions, the bride wore not one, not two, not three, but FOUR amazing dresses.
Documenting the marriage proved an incredible privilege, a highly immersive education, and a cultural and technical challenge. In addition to knowing very little about photography or the camera itself, I also didn't know much about wedding rituals in Côte d'Ivoire, which vary greatly according to religion, tribe, and location. (Should I be ready to get the "kiss at the altar" shot? Will they want a photo of the little people on the top of the cake? Do they even do wedding cakes here? ... Do people in America even have little people on wedding cakes these days?) I often found myself wildly shooting at anyone doing anything just in case it held significance.
Eventually though, I put the camera down and enjoyed myself as a guest.
Here are some "snapshots" of what that experience entailed.
I'm eating at our table and suddenly I hear over the microphone: "Would the American please take to the floor, and dance as a gift to the new couple?" Needless to say, I went with it!
Anna, Debbie, and I take a break from eating, drinking, and dancing.
Almost everyday, Côte d'Ivoire rises to the challenge of making me laugh a little harder and smile a little broader than the day before. So if asked if I love it here, I can gleefully, immediately, and confidently say
Until Next Time,