I spent an extraordinary year eating tiny pineapples, speaking French, driving a little green frog (yes, driving) — and taking pictures of heavily pierced men. Before I was a wedding photographer, I was a photojournalist (and a nomad). And I had a lot of adventures. Here is the one I want to share today. I like to call it: “So Delicious, So Mauritius”.
Ah Mauritius… that little African island I called “home” in 2005 while I spent my Fulbright year photographing ceremonies and rituals – including Hindu and Muslim weddings.
I’m excited to announce a new blog series called “On Assignment”. This is where I share the stories and pictures from my adventures as a photojournalist over the past 15 years. I’m starting with this one, because Mauritius is where I started to fall in love with documenting weddings with my camera.
Very few Americans have heard of Mauritius, and even fewer have been there… because it’s just really far away (500 miles east of Madagascar). It’s a beautiful tropical island with beaches and plenty of tasty rum (not that I would know), and it’s more of a vacation spot for Europeans and South Africans than for us Americans who would need to fly for 24 hours just to get there.
I was really lucky. In 2005 I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship from the U.S. State Department to spend a year doing a photo documentary project. The Fulbright program is a grant opportunity for American students to live abroad and do research in their particular field. I had recently graduated from Ohio University with a masters degree in photojournalism, and I was humbled to receive this amazing grant to pursue my passion.
Mauritius – where you can find communities of Indian Hindus, Indian Muslims, Chinese, Creole and French – is the perfect place to go if you’re fascinated by ceremonies and rituals from different cultures. It’s a photojournalists paradise. A million people live on this little patch of land, which is only two-thirds the size of Rhode Island. It’s one of the most densely packed countries in the world. And the diversity of cultures that co-habitate in this tropical paradise is incredible. Every religion is found here, and every holiday observed. LOTS of national holidays.. the school kids are hardly ever in school (lucky kids).
Here you’ll see photos from Chinese New Year in Chinatown, from Holi, from Cavadee, from a Hindu wedding and from a Muslim wedding. This is where it all started for me – this was my discovery of how beautiful and emotional it is to document the most romantic rite of passage of all – a wedding.
There are so many unforgettable things about my time in Mauritius. I don’t even know where to start… perhaps the best part was making friends with people from all over the world. My friends were German, Indian, South African, Canadian. I learned how to swear in multiple languages that year.
There was my adorable little green car – nicknamed “Froeschle” by my Anne, it’s a German word that means “little frog”. I was a bit nervous to drive in Mauritius, as it had the reputation for having the highest death rate due to auto accident per capita, in the world. So I decided, I’d take the whole driving thing kind of slow. Take a month or two to “train” on mostly empty back roads – build my confidence and my skills – before really going for it.
Well that didn’t happen. On night #3 in Mauritius, in a raging tropical storm, at night, I was forced to just dive in head first. I had to get everyone home (and by everyone I mean, a car full of no-so-sober people). So I jumped into a friends car, and I just figured it out. The steering wheel was in the wrong place. I had to drive on the opposite side of the street. There was zero visibility due to the storm.
Did I mention that Froeschle was a manual/stickshift? So there was that. I mean, I can drive stick, but I had certainly never done it left-handed. To this day, I consider that night to be one of my greatest accomplishments. I got everyone home in one piece. I might have been driving the wrong way down a highway at one point, but hey, no one’s perfect!
I’ll never forget photographing Holi. Holi is a harvest and fertility celebration that involves throwing colored powder and colored water on each other. The day is marked by long processions of dancing and singing.
What they don’t tell you is how much people are drinking during all of this revelry. I attached myself to a particularly merry band of Holi celebrants, who enthusiastically included me in their group by holding me down and rubbing colored powder all over my face. As the group got progressively drunker, and more “enthusiastic”, we decided to pack it up and head home.
But for months afterwards, I was still finding Holi powder inside my camera. That’s right – inside my camera. Tucked into little nooks and crannies. A happy little reminder of that wild day. Here I am (center) with Heather and Rishi at Holi:
People of Indian origin, or Indo-Mauritians, make up nearly 70% of the population. Indo-Mauritians maintain their ties to India with celebrations and by observing age-old ceremonies their ancestors brought to the island.
Tamils are a sub-group of Indo-Mauritians whose ancestors hail from the state of Tamil Nadu in south India. Cavadee is a Tamil ritual of devotion to the son of Shiva – the granter of wishes. During Cavadee, worshippers walk for hours carrying a Cavadee, or a heavy arch-shaped wooden structure as a sign of penance. They pierce their skin, tongues, cheeks and other body parts with tiny needles. Some walk on shoes made of nails. Some hang small fruits – or other weights – from their piercings, or pull heavy weights attached to their body by their multiple piercings.
Cavadee is supposed to be a practice in controlling the mind, and transcending physical pain.
Another subgroup of Indo-Mauritians are Muslims. At a Muslim wedding, a bride usually wears a white (Western style) dress. Since girls in Mauritius live at home until the day of their marriage, many brides are emotional in anticipation of leaving their family for the first time.
Half of the Indo-Mauritian population are Hindus that originally come from north India. Two days before her wedding ceremony, a Hindu bride spends hours having her mehndi done. Mehndi is a henna paste that stains the skin a deep orange color.
The day before the wedding, a priest conducts a puja (prayer) at the home of the bride. Relatives of the bride apply turmeric to her face and body. This is done as a symbol of purification, and also to bring a glow to her complexion.
The following day the wedding ceremony takes place in a reception hall. The bride traditionally wears a red sari trimmed with gold threads and gold jewelry. Often brides will travel to India to buy saris and jewelry before their wedding.
After days of revelry and ceremony, the exhausted couple is finally pronounced husband and wife.
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When I returned to the U.S. in 2006, I started photographing weddings. Being a news photographer comes with its share of sad assignments (like funerals and tsunamis), and I couldn’t believe how ridiculously more satisfying it was to document joy and beauty. Not to mention, I couldn’t believe how perfectly my photojournalism skills prepared me to be a wedding photographer. Telling stories… about people… capturing candid moments and emotions… it’s what I had been doing all along! The pieces of the puzzle were starting to fit together.
And if you’re still reading this (hi Mom), here are the tiny pineapples I was talking about.
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