Okay, so this shoot wound up not only being a crash course in ceremonial first birthdays, but also one in life and death in a way I hadn't quite experienced before.
We'll do the life part first:
I was referred by a friend to shoot a party for sweet, tiny little Francis and the milestone of his first birthday -- an exciting occasion for most families, but particularly so in Korean culture. After brushing up on the subject (read: Googling), I learned that the first birthdays of Korean children are celebrated with particular fervor, as there was a time when many babies did not live long enough to celebrate that first trip around the sun, and also, that there would be a ceremonial aspect involved. Serving as a means to predict the course of the child's life, at some point during the gathering, several objects get laid out on a mat, and the baby is placed opposite them. It's said that whatever they gravitate toward and ultimately pick up or play with ('choose') bears weight on their choice of future career path. Common examples are string for longevity, a medal to represent justice, pens and paper for artistry, a bundle of coins for banking, a stethoscope, and so on.
Thus Francis, his parents, grandparents, great-grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends all gathered on an overcast Saturday afternoon to ring in his first year triumphantly -- lots of hugs, and lots of smiles, and two cakes, and a ton of babies. After about two hours of shooting, Francis' father, SJ, implored me to take a break; his grandmother basically strongarming me to sit down and join everyone for a bite to eat. I wound up spending a good amount of time with Aunt Rachel, talking about music and cultural differences, and life in Seattle and life in LA, and the insanely good shrimp they were serving, and these bizarre, dense desserts they kept passing around on paper plates.
The tables were cleared and the doljanchi ceremony came next, with everyone gathered around -- Francis 'chose' the medal that represented justice, which was fitting, seeing as SJ is an attorney! He was long overdue for a nap at that point and proceeded to go into low-grade meltdown, and the party wrapped up shortly afterward.
Here's a bit of what the day looked like, from the setting up onward:
Adorable, right? Totally. I know. But there's still the death part. Circles of life and all that, and now looking back, it seems only fitting for an event tied to such rite and tradition.
Not once, but several times during the afternoon, a few people casually, and non-emotionally, referred to the pending death of either themselves or a loved one. They weren't flat or cold, or Actively Not Processing Their Emotions, and they didn't seem to be hiding anything or stuffing any feelings -- they were simply calling it what it was. One woman asked me to take several portraits of her outside, "so that they have a picture to show of me, when I die." (She insisted on taking very serious shots, even though I did persuade her to smile for one.) When I mentioned this in passing, I was told, "Ah, yes, she's sick, she may not live much longer." My instinct was to smooth the pain over, you know, all "Well, she's not going anywhere today!" type of stuff, which was met with a strangely blank look. They were just as matter-of-fact when talking about the great-grandmother, who was hardly able to steady herself when she walked, as they had wanted here there since it would likely be the last big family gathering that showed her in the photos. I felt a hairline fracture begin in the glass case where my heart lives, only to have it erased by the brushing-off and movings-on of figuring out where everyone was going to sit to eat:
Francis is so adorable! This will probably be her last celebration with us. Can I get you another bottle of water?
I'm still not quite sure how to file it all. I'm a bit in awe that I was present enough to experience all these subtleties, and I'm working to remain open around the thoughts that flood in around it, even when they're too big to wrap my brain around completely. It bears some sitting-with that I can't possibly work through the entirety of now, but it's there in the recesses of my mind, almost like a present I get to unwrap when I'm ready. Honestly, it's the first time that death has shown up in my life in a way that isn't all-destroying or fear-inducing, and I'm grateful for it, and for every little nuance of the day. We really are still learning all the time, aren't we.
Happy birthday, Francis. May you live exactly the number of days you're supposed to.