Carnival captured

Carnival is colour. Carnival is music. Carnival is bacchanal. Movement. Energy. Art. Excitement. Top Trinidad photographers weigh in on the festival

Jeffrey Chock. Photograph courtesy Jeffrey ChockAbigail Hadeed. Photograph courtesy Abigail HadeedAlex Smailes. Photograph courtesy Alex SmailesBeauty in Perpetuity, portrayed by Terry Evelyn, from George Bailey`s band Realm of Fancy Bats and Clowns (1963). Photograph by Noel NortonEsau Millington portrays a traditional midnight robber. Photograph by Abigail HadeedMark Lyndersay. Photograph courtesy Mark LyndersayMarlon Rouse. Photograph courtesy Marlon RouseMasqueraders cross the Savannah stage. Photograph by Marlon RouseNoel Norton. Photograph courtesy Noel NortonPeter Minshall`s band This is Hell (2001), crossing the Savannah stage. Photograph by Jeffrey ChockThe late Edgar Whiley portrays a traditional bat on the Savannah stage. Photograph by  Mark LyndersayTraditional devil mas in Paramin, the hilltop village north of Port of Spain. Photograph by Alex Smailes

Carnival is colour, the old cliché goes. Carnival is music. Carnival is bacchanal. Movement. Energy. Art. Excitement. “The greatest show on earth.” Trinidad Carnival is all those things. But Carnival is also essentially ephemeral. We spend months planning and anticipating the festival, then Carnival Monday and Tuesday speed by in a whirl of noise and heat and dust and life. On Ash Wednesday morning, when the music trucks shut down and the costumes are in the gutter, all that’s left are memories — and photographs.

And, as the years pass, photographs become our memories of Carnival. In bright colour or sober black and white, whether stuck in private albums, reproduced in books, or hung on gallery walls, it’s the images captured on film — or, these days, in digital files — that linger longest, after personal recollections fade, and that can be passed down to new generations.

Over the decades, the Carnival photos of a few professional photographers have particularly stood out, whether for their documentary value or their artistic significance. What makes a good — or a great — Carnival photo? In the following pages, Caribbean Beat asks six photographers each to choose from his or her respective body of work a single photo that captures something of the essence of the Carnival phenomenon, and tell the story behind the image.

 


 

Noel Norton

“I love seeing other people play mas”

“I found out quite early in life that the one thing I should never do is play mas, I just am not that kind of person . . . but I love seeing other people play mas, and when I love seeing people do things I want to photograph them, so I did it for fun . . . I don’t do photography of Carnival because I want to photograph our cultural heritage or any sophisticated, grandiose reason except that I love photographing people playing mas and having fun . . . They liked it, and they look forward to me doing it, year after year. They still do, they look out for me and so I keep photographing.

“I cannot be everywhere at Carnival time and there’s so much more than I am unable to record, but I have seen changes — gradual changes. I’ve seen our ups and downs.

“[Beauty in Perpetuity] was one of [George] Bailey’s costumes. That was one of the first ‘big mas’ that I ever photographed, and for the rest of my life I will always remember that particular photograph. Terry Evelyn was a most co-operative mas player, really fantastic. His costume was brilliant. There have been few mas which have surpassed it. In 1963, this was really the thing.

“I photographed that one on the road — in those days I really stuck to the road. I was around, all over Woodbrook and downtown Port of Spain, the Savannah, Belmont, wherever there was mas. It wasn’t always at the Savannah, nor did we have the bleachers the way we have them now. It’s more concentrated now than it was in those days, we saw mas everywhere and the bands were smaller.

“Everybody’s friendly. I like that too, it’s nice just to look at the stage and see a judge or a well-known doctor walking, jumping across, having a ball, you know, I’ve seen that. I’ve seen a few government ministers, judges, I’ve even seen priests, jumping along, enjoying themselves.

“Carnival is a wonderful thing. I wish I could show all those things in my photographs. I hope I have some that can demonstrate that.”


As told to Simon Lee; excerpted from
Noel Norton’s 20 Years of Trinidad Carnival, 1999

 


 

Jeffrey Chock

“These fantastic notions get into my head”

“All my Carnival photos fall into one vast pool of documentation. My criteria [for good Carnival photos] largely have to do with interface. First of all, the interface between the designer and the masquerader or masqueraders; in turn, the masqueraders’ interface between one another; and then the result of that interfacing with me, taking their picture. So what I’m doing really does not involve good, better, or best. It involves a degree of success in how well these three different types of interface come together, and what sort of impact it has on the viewer — of which I am one, in the first place, in that I intuitively become a viewer as a photographer. It’s a little voyeuristic.

“The particular image is, like everything else, a bit of skill and a bit of luck, in that I see images passing by all the time, for which, for one reason or another, I’m not ready — I may have the wrong equipment, or it may be the wrong lighting. Over the years I’ve learned to recognise these, and know that they will come again, in a better circumstance. Or if they don’t — you can’t have everything. So I don’t miss them too much. Perhaps that is part of the excitement and discovery of the whole thing, which is reduced now by the immediacy of digital.

“The year [This is Hell] came out, I was saying to everyone I wanted some rain. And they said, what, Carnival with rain? I said, yes, because it makes such nice reflections from the road. And that night when the band crossed the Savannah, they unrolled this gigantic piece of plastic across the stage that gave the same effect. Almost like a storm-swept sea with very gorgeous flotsam.

“I started out with Peter [Minshall]. We went to London together, and I follow his work. It’s refreshing that he brings new ideas to traditional characters. His work fits in rectangles very well. You have little scenarios coming out of the performance.

“This photo definitely shows the intent of the designer: This Is Hell. It’s a very rococo kind of style. It’s very lush, very decadent, and has a kind of multiple meaning. Look at the faces: this resplendent figure; this one hiding what might be her real self with a mask given to her by the designer; how they interact, which seems to be a bit negative, caused by this man, this mysterious figure moving through them, and into a crowd of vastness. And this looks like an inferno, another circle of hell, with the red smoke-filled sky. All of these fantastic notions get into my head when I am photographing.”

As told to Nicholas Laughlin

 


 

Mark Lyndersay

“The image gathers together all the sadness I’ve felt”

Photographing Carnival for almost twenty years now has left me with many pictures of the event and the people who create it each year, but choosing the one image that I prize above all others set me to thinking about why I keep returning.

Carnival’s masquerade is the most plastic of arts. Disposable by design, it is designed to bloom like a flower for just a few hours on a Monday and Tuesday once a year, and then disappear. Pictures are all that remain of an event which grips hundreds of thousands of people, many of them for unceasing days and nights in the weeks leading up to the celebration.

In the end, choosing my favourite image turned out to be easy, because it’s the only Carnival photo I have mounted in the display area of my studio, and it’s one that I never tire of looking at it as I walk through the door to my office. It’s a photo of the late Edgar Whiley, the noted practitioner of the bat masquerade, swirling his handmade costume in the middle of the Savannah stage. Just behind him are the mas faithful, lining the edge of the stage, which reaches them almost to chest height. Only a few of them are even looking at his work; most of the others are looking down the track. The image gathers together for me all the sadness I’ve felt when I see these individuals, who once commanded presence on the streets of Port of Spain, reduced to an interruption in the flow of bejewelled and feathered humanity that this enormous stage was built to accommodate.

This was, to the best of my knowledge, the last time that Edgar Whiley would play his mas on the big stage.

In reviewing my archives, I was struck by the similarity in tone of the Whiley photo to the two other images I considered. In the first, the late Brian Honoré is surrounded by attentive children in his dragon costume at an early Viey La Cou event at Queen’s Hall, one of the earliest efforts at finding a new home for these increasingly sidelined performers. You can see the details of his costume, built from palm leaves and bubble-wrap packing material, but all the children see is the man behind the terrifying portrayal.

In the second, an ageing man is leaving the stage in a wheelchair decorated with royal pomp, an effigy of the late Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams bobbing above him. The man is Charles Peace, whose dedication to painting himself in the service of the masquerade made him a celebrity among the mas faithful. This was also his last appearance on the Savannah stage.

Three men, all now dead, were my front-line selections for a personal Carnival favourite. All they have in common is a lifelong dedication to a personal interpretation of the elusive quality of “mas”, and the lure of these unique performances is probably why I’ve remained at stageside for all these years.

Mark Lyndersay

 


 

Abigail Hadeed

“These characters get lost in the madness”

“All my personal work for Carnival is shot in black and white, as opposed to colour. Obviously these costumes are very colourful. But for some reason, I just find that colour distracts from the character itself, and the individual. Midnight robbers, imps, devils, all these people, they’re foreboding, and they’re meant to scare you and taunt you. I like the whole idea of good over evil, and the battle in that space. So I tend to go for the black and white, where I can control the image — I can get what I want. I know what I’m feeling, I know what I’m seeing, I know what I want.

“I’ve been photographing traditional mas since the early 1990s. Simply because it was Carnival. Most or almost all my photography, my personal work, centres on the peripheries of life. I’ve always felt sort of isolated. I feel sort of like an oddball. I’m always one of these satellites, on the outside. So all my work deals with isolation and not belonging. These characters used to belong in Carnival. Now it almost seems like they don’t. They get lost in the madness of Carnival. I relate to their situation.

“I never decide to follow one group of Carnival characters. I just kind of wander around, and I hope to find them.

“This is Esau Millington, and he’s playing a midnight robber. This is from the very early years of the Friday downtown Carnival. These individuals were getting ready, just dressing. He might have been putting on his boots. They start off in the boys’ school on George Street.

“Carnival is frenetic. You’ve got to be quick, and you’ve got to find the space. You know athletes talk about getting into the zone? You need to get the zone and capture it. Photography is all about timing.

“Usually I like to isolate my images. That’s the issue I have with Carnival, because a lot of the time there’s rubbish on the street, too many people making odd faces in your picture, and too much distraction. So I do try intentionally to isolate the image. I generally don’t use long lenses. Most of my images are shot with wide-angle lenses, very close to the subject.

“The distinctive border around the image is the edge of the film. It’s really about explaining to you that I compose in the camera, as opposed to cropping the image. None of my images are cropped. What I’m trying to say to the viewer is, I see my image in the camera, not long after the fact. My images are thought out — the composition I want, the angle I want — everything is decided in a split second.

“In any image I’m looking for what Cartier-Bresson called ‘the decisive moment’ — that which is timeless. It’s like locking into another human being — you lock into the soul or essence, that vibration. Everything has a vibration. To make something timeless, I feel you have to be able to get into that space. That’s what I try for.”

As told to Nicholas Laughlin

 


 

Alex Smailes

“Just a baseline human enjoyment”

“It was the usual Monday evening up in Paramin. It was one of the first times I went up there. I specifically wanted to shoot it on a panoramic camera. I had a little flash, and I turned the power right down. I wanted a long exposure, because Paramin has beautiful light up there in the evening, which I’d seen before. So it was a longish exposure with a little pop-up flash, just to highlight the people. But I still wanted those dark, moody undertones of the colours and the evening light.

“It’s an interesting frame, that wider view. If it was a normal camera, I wouldn’t have got that guy’s face in, walking past me already. All those elements added together: beautiful light, the murkiness of it, the wide angle, and the little drop flash — all those elements come into one to create that image. And that was back in the days of shooting on film. When it’s dark you can’t focus anyway. I just put it on 2.8 and hope for the best.

“Carnival has so many different layers, doesn’t it? Sifting those different layers to spot the in-between bits is what I enjoy. A girl who’s lost her band, and she’s walking past an abandoned building. There’s something really bizarre about that. I love spotting the old-time characters, in a changing Trinidad.

“I tend to lose most of my equipment around Carnival time, whether it’s a lens dropped or something broken or covered in mud. Last year in a J’Ouvert band I dropped a digital card and it disappeared into a crowd. Someone retrieved it for me. I put it in the wrong way round, and broke the camera. I woke up drunk in the Savannah once, at midday.

“I haven’t spent enough time with the Paramin devils to understand what it’s really all about — but it’s just a baseline human enjoyment, isn’t it? Getting down and dirty and drunk.

“Paramin mas just gives amazing pictures. You don’t really have to work that hard.”

As told to Nicholas Laughlin



Marlon Rouse

“You see it, you snatch it”

“Carnival is about energy. It’s a very crazy two-day period, that mas-playing session. There are extremes. There’s the very intense expression of that energy, and then when you come off of that high, you crash — where you’re sitting at the side of the road, or sleeping in a drain. It’s still a reflection of the energy as it’s being expelled, or after it has been.

“If you’re inside a band and shooting with a fairly wide-angle lens, as you’d have to, because people are arm’s-length away from you — and all the jumping up and the beads and the confetti, and you are on stage — when you get that photograph, it’s frame to frame, corner to corner bacchanal. There are bits and pieces of people jutting into your image. I like the touch and feel aspects of being on the stage and being that close. You take away the thing with you, and you’re better able to represent what you saw when you’re editing your pictures. You can feel it all again. You remember the people being happy, and you feel it for them, or with them.

“I took this photo in 2005. At the time I was photo editor at the Trinidad Guardian, and that year in particular I decided I needed to go out and take some pictures — I got really tired of just editing, editing, editing, going through other photographers’ work. And I was tired of, you know, the wine and jam, the beads and feathers.

“There was an observation bridge [at the main stage in the Savannah] that went across from the Grand Stand to the North Stand at the western end of the stage, the exit. So I stayed there for a while, photographed a few bands. It was a good day for mas, and a good day for playing, and I was happy to be in the shade.

“There’s a bit of a distance from the observation bridge to the ground, so you need a medium telephoto lens in order to get in as close as you’d like. What I wanted was the intensity of the shadow. In this photo you can see what we see as Carnival: the women, feathers, the waving, the flag, the drink — all the elements are there.

“You see it, you snatch it as it happens before you, and it disappears if you’re not there and not ready. I love that. You can’t replicate it, even if you tried.”

As told to Nicholas Laughlin