Having first encountered working with the still image in the darkrooms of her high school, photographer and writer Samantha Cabrera Friend has since developed a practice dedicated to telling stories. Mainly working on long-term projects, the Chicago and New York-based creative focusses on “the cultural expectations of women and female youth in my community,” a topic which recently led her to board one of the largest cruise ships in the world to document the phenomenon of the quinceañera cruise.
Titled Maiden Voyage, the series details Samantha’s trip among the 6000 people who convened to celebrate the quinceañeras – 15th birthdays – of 40 girls. A mammoth operation — the 1,188ft-long ship includes an indoor replica of New York’s Central Park — Samantha first discovered the concept through Julia Alvarez’s book Once Upon a Quinceañera. “Immediately, I felt deeply interested and personally attached to the idea that a rite of passage rooted in the confines of patriarchy could transform itself into an empowering tradition based in sisterhood, then foster a multiplicity of cultural adaptations once brought into the US and celebrated around the world,” she tells It’s Nice That.
A “lot of cold calling” later and she obtained access to this world, joining the cruise at its departure from Fort Lauderdale in Florida. “I met everyone for the first time once onboard the ship and got to know a great deal of the quinceañeras and their families, running into them at the beach, interviewing them while in line for a waterslide, and taking a rest with them at the all you can eat pizza café,” she recalls. Throughout the series which captures the lavish ceremonies and parties, Samantha’s effort to build genuine relationships with the girls and their families is evident. The images are intimate and fond, feeling more a part of the official celebrations than a documentation of them.
Beyond their surface level, however, the images are a testament to the ever-changing tradition of the quinceañera. It captures the “mixed bag of ancestral customs and modern re-creations that have a cultured significance unlike any other Latin tradition”, as Samantha writes in her article on Topic. The event, which historically represented the time at which a 15-year-old girl was deemed ready for marriage, has now modernised to form a collective celebration of this important coming-of-age birthday.
For example, Maiden Voyage shows girls dressed in both traditional and modest white gowns which symbolise purity and commitment to the Catholic Church, alongside their contemporaries sporting more risqué blue, pink and even red dresses. It captures the formalities of the tradition such as the presentation of the quinceañeras who receive a rose from their mother before inviting their father for a final dance. But simultaneously the series displays how these traditions have morphed to include Beauty and the Beast themes, 360-degree videos and T-shirts with the words “Quinceañera Cruise Mode: ON” across their chests.
“It’s my hope,” explains Samantha of the project and its significance so far, “that the work I have produced will help illuminate a new, historical path of research and community regarding today’s tradition of the quinceañera.”
You can read the full details and see the full series of images from Samatha’s trip here.
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