Fatime and Thyldan's Congolese Engagement Party in Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Most of the engagements (and weddings) I encounter are pretty straight forward. One person asks another to be with him/her for the rest of their lives and usually there is a “yes” and then there is a wedding and then they are married.

In some cultures, there’s a little more to it than that. Fatime and Thyldan are both from the Congo but met here in the United States and they asked if I would document their engagement party at Fatime’s home in Pittsfield a few days before their wedding. With both of their families living so far away, neither side had ever been able to meet, and the couple decided they would celebrate early with a traditional marriage rite.

I would say this event was kind of like the first day of a weekend-long wedding. Having come from a big Portuguese family, when Fatime kept sweetly asking if I was going to be okay covering such an unusual ceremony, I kept assuring her, “Don’t worry, I’m Portuguese. Our weddings are crazy long too”.

The marriage rite took place in her backyard in a small neighborhood near Pontoosuc lake in Pittsfield. When I arrived, Thyldan and Fatime were away but her house was full of family that had traveled from various corners of the world. There were two big tents set up in the backyard and a canopy for the couple at the front.

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Fatime and Thyldan wanted to have this event so their parents could meet and approve of the engagement and marraige. It was an opportunity for immediate family to offer advice, send well wishes, and confirm intentions. There were two MC’s and a DJ and every once in a while, the DJ would play a laugh track or use an air horn sound effect in reaction to something the MC said. It kept the crowd engaged and made it feel like a live taping of a variety show.

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I photographed Fatime at a hotel in downtown Pittsfield where she was getting ready with her friends. She told me ahead of time that she would be there with her sisters and asked if I could grab some photos of her getting ready with them. Well, when I opened the door to her hotel room and found nearly a dozen women in there I couldn’t help but yell in surprise “these are your sisters?!” She laughed and explained that she calls her cousins sisters, so no, these were not really her sisters.

Regardless, I was still impressed. I have a lot of cousins and I’ve never thought to try and fit them all in a single hotel room but I bet it would look something like this.

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While Fatime got ready, the MC’s worked the crowd by having various women come out hiding under fabric to trick Thyldan and the crowd into thinking that it might be Fatime.

“Is it her? Is it her?" they’d say.

They’d pull the fabric away and sadly no it was not “the beautiful eagle” (the bride).

This went on for about an hour, with the MC’s taking turns building anticipation and tricking the crowd into thinking the bride had arrived.

When she finally did arrive, she came out into the backyard under a sheet of fabric. She was led by her sisters who entered with a choreographed dance. This reveal was more dramatic and vetted than the previous reveals so guests had a feeling that it was “the beautiful eagle” they were waiting for all this time.

They removed the fabric and there was such a celebration.

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It was then Fatime’s turn to go and find her soon to be husband. She wandered around the tents looking for the man she would marry.

A few men came forward and she would politely tell them that they were not the one she was looking for.

When she finally found Thyldan, and the crowd erupted.

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The couple had to get permission from both of their parents and confirm their intentions to marry and be faithful partners. This was symbolized with the gift of a drink. First Fatime went and expressed her love and devotion to Thyldan and asked for her father’s approval and then Thyldan did the same with his father.

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Fatime’s father, uncle and mother got together and came up with a list of things the husband-to-be must bring their family. This can be everything from goats and chickens to expensive suits, pots, and machetes. The families then went behind the canopy to negotiate with one another in private, away from the couple.

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After negotiations came to an end, the MC’s had the couple offer one another drinks as a symbol of a kiss.

Fatime and Thyldan had never kissed before they were married. This was something I accidentally learned when I took their engagement photos and kept asking them to kiss! I wasn’t sure why they kept pausing just before kissing and they told me that their first kiss would be on their wedding day. They are the only couple I’ve ever worked with who had never kissed before. How special is that?

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After the ceremony they held a reception at the Berkshire Hills Country Club just down the road in Pittsfield. Fatime told me that dancing would start before food even hit the table, and she was absolutely right about that. The dancing was so much fun, EVERYONE was on the dance floor.

The next day the couple drove off to NYC to get ready for their official wedding day. I was exhausted so I imagine that they were too.

I love events that throw unexpected surprises and unforeseen challenges at me, so this one was my jam. Aside from a few portraits of Fatime before the ceremony, I was in full documentary mode for the whole afternoon.

A popular phrase I would hear when I worked for the newspaper was “If you saw it, you missed it.” Never has this phrase applied more to a hired event for me. I don’t think I put my camera down once during this ceremony, there was that much going on. I delivered Fatime and Thyldan a gallery FULL of candids.

I feel a different energy when I shoot like this, and when I get into a groove, I am reminded of why I chose this job in the first place.

Sure, it puts food on the table for my family, but it is also my passion. My camera is a ticket to new experiences and Thyldan and Fatime’s marriage rite really reminded me of how special that is. As long as this is my job, I’ll never stop growing and learning.