MERMAIDS AND OTHER CREATURES
Coney Island is located in the southern part of Brooklyn, New York. It faces the Atlantic Ocean and is known for its amusement park, wide sandy beach, and boardwalk. At an annual summer event, marchers dress as mermaids, fish, lobsters, pirates, sailors, jellyfish, and various other sea creatures—and in a variety of other costumes sometimes unrelated to the theme of the sea. This series of photographs was made in 2011 to 2016 before the start of the procession, which winds through the streets and down the boardwalk of Coney Island.
This event gives the participants an opportunity to design their own costumes and to dress up and show off their creations. The diversity of bright and colorful costumes adds to the Mardi Gras atmosphere, and in many cases, enables people to display a side of themselves that is seldom seen. Some marchers are masked as they assume other identities.
One of the women I photographed wrote to me in an email: “I was a mermaid! Her name is Katrina, Queen of the Waves. It’s my inner mermaid persona.” What we portray in our everyday life is also not likely real, and the masks and costumes we put on during parades and other rituals are an attempt to escape from one unreality to another, if only for a short time.
Anthropologist Barbara Babcock calls these dressing-up opportunities “symbolic inversion.” During these rituals, we are more likely to dress up in costumes that are the polar opposite of the person everyone knows. Events such as parades make it socially acceptable for a person to escape into another reality.
These inversion rituals give us an opportunity to make our hidden fantasies real, even if they go against long-held social norms. We can overturn social conventions in a socially acceptable way, and we don’t have to do it alone. Our fantasies are supported by other participants and cheering spectators. Participants can wear normally “unacceptable,” sensational, or even sexy costumes. And participation in many events is very democratic; you don’t have to be a movie star, a great athlete, a political figure, or anything like that. You can often be a participant simply if you want to be.
For me, this is another window into how we see ourselves as a society and as individuals.