For photographer Bruce McNeil, every step backward has led closer to success. The latest achievement for this recent D.C. resident is a solo exhibition of his work at the Parish Gallery.
The photographs on display, taken on a 1994 trip to Ghana, depict three slave castlesCape Coast, Elmina, and Fort Abalonewhere African captives were kept before entering slave ships.
McNeil had no idea when he boarded his plane that he was going to photograph the castles. He went as part of a team to cover Panafest, a large Pan-African arts festival with events in such cities as Accra, Cape Coast, and Kumasi.
The castles were being opened to the public for the first time, and McNeil attended the ceremony, which began after midnight and didn’t end until just before dawn. “My colleague and I and other photographers and reporters were high up in the tower,” he says. “A phalanx of women blowing carved ivory horns led processions through the streets into the castle, into a courtyard, into the bowels of the dungeon. At that point libations and homage and prayers were givenall sorts of ceremonies and prayers by candlelight, which made it even more emotional.”
“I got up the next morning and began photographing extensively and carried over those feelings from the night before,” says McNeil. “I was working for the Ghanaian tourist bureau, so on the way to photographing ‘pretty’ and ‘interesting’ things, we would pass these castles and I would go in and do my thing.”
Indeed, McNeil’s entire career as a photographer came about
as something of a detour. He worked in the computer department of Look magazine, but his interest in photography grew, and he eventually took a cut in pay and seniority to work in the darkroom as an apprentice. He then spent many years
in Montreal, where he handled glass negative plates for the William Naughton archives.
“Usually you learn photography from taking the print,” says McNeil. “Well, I was learning backward from the negative. I would learn to expose like they did and study the composition that they did. Eventually I would make [my own] exposures and then compare.”
His experience in architectural photography led to free-lance tourist photography, like the assignment in Ghana, which he calls “a spiritual odyssey.”
“We had a formal greeting by some Ghanaians, and what they said was, ‘Welcome home,’” recalls McNeil. “I wish other African-Americans [could] share the experience I had and sort of go through ‘the door of no return,’ as a return.”
“It was going backward in time. The final touch was the castle,” he says, pausing. “Sometimes we have to go backward to go forwards.”Holly Bass
Parish Gallery’s opening of “Thru the Door of No Return: Photographic Images of Ghana Slave Castles” is Friday, March 6, 6-8 p.m. The show runs to March 17.