Photographing Carnival has always been one of the great challenges of my photographic career. I’ve been in the Savannah for at least three decades now, learning my craft as I photographed the changing tableau that paraded back and forth in front of me. As time has gone by, two things have happened; my personal budget for capturing things Carnival related has grown ever so slightly even as my focus has narrowed; I simply no longer have the stamina to chase after everything Carnival related.
But the need for a budget on photography during Carnival has always been real. It’s probably hard for today’s Flickr crazy photophiles to understand, but there was once a real cost associated with every photo you took. A colour transparency cost around $10 to produce and you weren’t just taking one to get one, so after an edit, the real cost of a final collection of mounted, filed images hovered closer to $40 per frame. That imposed real limits on what you were inclined to shoot and how much of it you were willing to do with an uncertain return.
Old time characters
Toward the end of the decade of my life that I spent photographing the theatre in Trinidad (1979-1989), I tugged at the few strands of “contact” that I had managed to gather during that time to try a different approach to photographing the Carnival characters at Viey La Cou, the annual celebration of Carnival’s history. The problem was the growing popularity of the event and the ensuing crush of admirers and snappers that were crowding the performers.
The result was a small location studio space in the area that served as a bar in the “old” Queen’s Hall to which the performers were escorted to be photographed after they made ready for their performance. There wasn’t much time and the sometimes confused performers were skittish about the environment, but the photographs are, in retrospect, a remarkable document of performers who were making their last turns on the stage. Theresa Montano, Minstrel Queen, Edgar Whiley, Bat Master, and Andrew Puggy Joseph, Midnight Robber, are no longer with us, gone less than ten years after those photos were done.
Shot on 6cm square Tri-X one Sunday evening, this grayscale memoir of another age, less than 36 photos all told edited to just 11 images, lives on in my online exhibit space, The Virtual Gallery .
Tribe and today
In contrast to that photographic record is my recent Local Lives project Gathering the Tribe scheduled to appear in tomorrow’s paper. That story, an attempt to thread together the myriad processes that are mustered to put the all-inclusive band Tribe on the street, has been in production since March 2008. I’m currently working with a loose edit of 900 photos that must be tightened to a dozen, culled from 4,000 photos taken over the course of many of meetings and encounters over the last year.
One aspect of this experience is the sheer expense of committing this level of resources to any kind of documentary record in the days of powdered chemistry and gelatin coated film. My budget for Carnival Tuesday until 2004, the last year I shot Carnival old-school, was roughly a dozen rolls of 35mm transparency film. By the time I’m done with the Tribe story, I will have shot more than sixteen times that number of frames.
The lure of Carnival Tuesday remains strong. It’s the apotheosis, indeed the embodiment, of our desires for the national festival writ large on the streets, and the Carnival we have is the one we desire most. Still, I keep one eye over my shoulder, understanding that there are now hundreds of quite capable cameras with extremely sophisticated technology governing their operations that are capturing the same things in the same space.
Freed of the demands of hard numbers and demarcated by snappers to the left and shooters to the right, my own passion for Carnival is drifting further behind the scenes into the real arcana of the mas, the engine rooms that fire the festival.