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“I was raised by black women,” the Haitian-American photographer Sheilby Macena tells me. “I was surrounded by proud black women growing up. I saw them cooking together, going to church, bringing food to one another, laughing and sharing. My mother had friends she knew since she was living in Haiti.” 

The artist thought of her family and their shared history decades later as she traveled the world and visited Dakar, Senegal, a year ago. “I felt spiritually and mystically connected to my ancestors, feeling as though they had walked the grounds I am currently walking,” she remembers. After Dakar, she traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, where she saw Julie Dash’s 1991 Daughters of the Dust for the first time. It felt like destiny. 

The film, set in 1902, follows the Peazant family as they prepare to move to the mainland United States from an island off the coast of Georgia. By the end, some members of the family will say goodbye to the island. Others will choose to remain. The film is a classic; decades later, it helped inspire Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and it also helped inspire Macena’s first photo-story, Daughters

“When I first watched the movie, I was immediately struck by the cinematography. It felt like I was watching art — the composition, the feel of the luscious island, beautiful glowing black skins, natural hair, thick accents, and sophisticated wear…it made me think that this is what my ancestors look like, this is who they are or who they were,” the artist says. 

“I saw so much of myself as well and got to thinking about this idea of displacement and moving for better opportunities. I thought about the risk and bravery that comes from that and how my parents did the same thing with leaving Haiti to settle in Florida. I did it by choice. My parents did too; however, their decision was a bit tougher than mine and under very different circumstances. And my ancestors? It is their silent sacrifices that give me the freedom of choice today.” 

Approximately two weeks after seeing the film, Macena was at Noordhoek Beach in Cape Town, the sun on her face, bringing her own vision to life with help from a team of creatives. She met Samantha, one of the models, while assisting on a friend’s photoshoot, and through Samantha, she met her twin sister, Kimberly. She connected with Andréa Loupis, a fellow photographer and creative director, over Instagram; they oversaw the styling, with help from Gcobisa Gee Yako. Ayesha Kazim and Sophony Macena assisted. Loupis recommended Noordhoek Beach.

“This was an amazing crew not only because we did Daughters together, but we also executed two other shoots during my time in Cape Town,” Macena says. “No partnership, no brand sponsoring, no money or resources other than our own. We all just had that hunger as artists to do the things we wanted and make the most of what we have.

“I loved every minute of it, from the doubts and anxiety to pushing through and watching everything unfold in front of my eyes. From forming the crew to running around the costume shop, choosing the garments, to an early call time of 4:00 AM. From driving on the coast to Noordhoek Beach to chasing the light with Samantha and Kimberly.”

Daughters spans continents, weaving together the past, present, and future. Dancing in the sand, the daughters in the photographs come to represent the artist, her mother, and the friendships forged by women, across generations. They conjure memories, while also inviting us to dream about what lies ahead, for the daughters of these daughters. 

“I think of what it must have been like for my mom, moving from Haiti to Florida, but I don’t think my imagination can imagine things I just don’t know,” Macena says now. “But what I do know is that my survival, my success, my determination and strength come from the women in my life who understand me better than I understand myself. Those things all come from being seen in a world that continues to look past me. We stick together and go through it together. Think Color Purple, Nettie and Celie – worlds apart but still looking up at the same blue sky, knowing that they’ll see each other again.” 

Sheilby Macena is a member of Black Women Photographers, a global community bringing together Black women and non-binary photographers. To learn more about Black Women Photographers, visit their website, and follow along on Instagram at @blackwomenphotographers

All images and captions © Sheilby Macena

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