Slice of Life: Quiet tribute to ancestors
I shot this in 1999 at Coney Island, New York. At the time, I was doing a residency at New York’s Dorsey Gallery.
The late Lenny Gittens had invited me for the residency and an exhibition in Brooklyn.
The piece is called Tribute to the Ancestors of the Middle Passage.
I don’t know whether they still do it but at that time, every summer in July, African-American people come together to pay tribute to these ancestors of the Middle Passage, who are those Africans who died during the passage on slave ships from Africa to the new worlds, the Americas. I mean, in terms of biology, if someone died on those slave ships, they would more than likely not have any descendants. So I think the ceremony was also about saying thank you for those who had survived — those from whom they are descended — as well as paying tribute to those who died.
Because it’s open to anyone who wants to attend, there were people of all different age groups who attended. It’s not like a church or something — it’s open to all.
You know, as someone who grew up in a township in South Africa — and having watched all those stereotypical representations of America on TV — I never expected to see people in the so-called First World still paying attention to matters relating to their ancestors. That really moved me when I was photographing that ceremony. It was a real surprise for me.
But I couldn’t really get to speak to anybody there, because when you’re a photographer taking pictures at events such as these, it is difficult to get to speak to people. You become very aware of not wanting to disturb anything. You don’t want to disturb that moment. That’s why I love this picture. It was a quiet moment, so it’s a quiet photograph. It allows you to meditate — to meditate along with the woman in the sea. — Andrew Tshabangu (50), as told to Carl Collison, the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian. Tshabangu’s retrospective exhibition, Footprints, is on at Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Gallery until April 27