Facebook and Twitter have taken every aspect of the Carnival scene online. You have easy access to fete schedules and flyers to help you decide where is the best place to party on any given night. While said fete is in progress, you can scan through scores of photographs to see who's there and what they're wearing. Missed Panorama semi-finals? YouTube is sure to have videos of the best steel pan performances. From soca tunes to costumes, social media has significantly expanded the reach of the festival – there are even entire businesses dedicated to documenting the social aspects of the season – but this year, the National Carnival Commission (NCC), the body charged with coordinating the organisational, promotional and commercial aspects of all things Carnival, finds itself in the midst of managing a controversy over accreditation rights and the use of Carnival imagery on social media.
Contention of this sort is unfortunately nothing new to the NCC, but the origin of the directive concerning online copyright is unclear. The National Carnival Bands Association (NCBA) has said that did not come from them (one unnamed company, according to reports, has allegedly secured the online publishing rights for the entire festival) while the NCC maintains that their attitude towards Carnival coverage is that it should be as far reaching and accessible as possible.
Two photographers who have spent much of their careers documenting Trinidad and Tobago Carnival have expressed their opinions about the whole affair. Abigail Hadeed posted a detailed status update on Facebook, the first part of which questioned where her accreditation fees were going:
As a photographer who has dedicated all of my working life to the documentation and archiving of Carnival and Traditional Mas, I have since 1985 paid for press passes. For all of these decades the people from whom I purchased the passes have never been able to adequately give me a break down of what I am paying for, or how they arrived at the cost. I have experienced everything form the hostile response ‘If you don’t like it you have a choice!’ to ‘it’s for the copyright — the designers get this money.’ Well I have spoken to many of the people I have photographed over these two decades and none have ever received a cent of the money collected.
She was “really disheartened” upon hearing reports of the selling of all the social media rights to one company, saying:
It seems that ignorance, greed and a lack of accountability is (sic) yet again the order of the day.
Hadeed went on to lament the unprofessionalism of the accreditation process as well as the lack of proper facilities for media:
Until 2 or 3 years ago [the process] provided neither a place to sit, nor a media area for photographers, far less access to toilets, parking, or a safe place to be when waiting on bands. At no time in the decades of my photographing carnival has anyone suggested to those constructing the stages that thought should be given to where the media needs to be, to adequately do their job. That said, if you attend any major event such as the Olympics, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, large concerts, etc…there are areas dedicated to media only — centers for the media to recharge batteries, upload images and so on…Here in Trinidad we behave like carnival is something new and every year treat it with a level of surprise and disorganization, so the same old arguments arise with no solutions found and this cycle continues year in and year out.
So disillusioned is Hadeed about the entire process that she decided not to pay for accreditation this Carnival:
I am now considering my further involvement in the photographing and documenting of our cultural heritage. Why should I continue to spend thousands of dollars for accreditation that is not justified and does not serve my needs as a photographer? The way things are now structured the cost of photographing carnival does not make financial sense. If we as a people do not care about being the keepers of our cultural heritage to the extent that we essentially obstruct rather than support the documentation and dissemination of our heritage, I am left wondering what will be there for future generations. It seems as though institutions outside of Trinidad have more of an appreciation for our culture than we do.
Fellow photography veteran Mark Lyndersay, who blogs here, republished a statement from the photographer who questioned the NCC accreditation process late last week and was told that whatever fee he paid would not include online rights:
For at least the last six years Zorce Publications Ltd. has successfully sought accreditation to shoot still photos for archive use on the internet. Prior to this we were not aware of the accreditation process.
On February 11th, around 2pm, we came to the NCC office to meet the usual pleasant and familiar people to apply once more for our accreditation.
Since the NCBA representative was present, a lady that we are accustomed to seeing each year for our interview, we proceeded with reading through this year's NCBA application form. The NCBA lady recalled that Zorce was on a list of companies that were to be told this year that no internet-related permissions would be allowed. She clarified that this meant no social media (e.g. Facebook), no websites or no web-streaming of any photos or video. She conveyed that she was told to let everyone on the list, which was presumably every entity that was internet accredited last year was to be told the same except one company that bought the exclusive rights this year from the NCBA. She then called the NCBA office and verified that this was in fact so.
The statement described, in further detail, why it was important for his company to be allowed online publishing rights – the fees for the remaining options of print and private archives were too expensive:
I reminded her that being a car-related publication and website, we fundamentally thought that it would be a good idea to promote T&T by inviting our web users to view our online archives and subsequently our social media albums; with the hope of attracting a different sector of tourists along with our regular readers.
She indicated that while she understood our position clearly, and she knows us from processing our permissions each year, she could only abide by the instructions she was given and suggested that anyone who wished to take the issue further could speak with the CEO of the NCBA.
The statement noted the highlights of the conversation and the pressing questions arising out of them:
• Who is the mystery person or organisation who was the exclusive right to internet related Carnival 2014 Mas content through the NCBA?
• What exactly is being paid for with respect to copyright fees with NCBA?
• Exactly who [does] the NCBA now represent/protect?
• What do the NCBA-protected gain?
• Can the NCBA assume control over an independently owned portal such as Facebook or the entire internet?
• What about tourists or simple amateur public photographers seeking to enjoy the event in their own non-commercial way?
• If a photographer or media producer has the direct permission of (a) band/bands via a signed, stamped letter from their bandleader(s) to put their content in an approved location inclusive of any specified print medium, website or social media outlet…where does the NCC stand on granting accreditation passes that indicate permission to shoot Mas?
Narend Sooknarine, the photographer, summed up his experience by saying:
Indirectly, it seems the NCC accreditation badge does not fully cover all permissions for all venues at this time since the NCBA does not represent many of the large and popular bands that form the bulk of our Carnival content.
Quite frankly for most photographers who are seeking to ‘do the correct thing’ this is proving to be unreasonable.
Mark Lyndersay, in a follow-up post, asked a perfectly legitimate question:
The first thing that’s worth considering here is why there is accreditation at all.
The only sensible answer is that there is a limited amount of space available with good access to the performances of Carnival.
If that’s the reason, then there are several aspects of that which need to be interrogated.
His analysis supported Abigail Hadeed's testimony of poor facilities and constrained access:
First, why is the physical space so limited? In fact, after all this time, the access area for most Carnival events is growing smaller and more hostile to photographers and videographers, which is somewhat strange, since it ensures that our coverage of Carnival is becoming less interesting and more constrained.
It also pushes people keen to make better pictures into defying stage rules and authority.
Given the nature of the festival, there has always been more people who want to capture images of events than there will be space to accommodate them comfortably.
Since this will always be a small group who should be in it?
It stands to reason that working media should be first on the list. These are the people who are responsible for the public record of Carnival, and their efforts ensure that there is archival testimony of the work that Carnival’s creators invest every year.
Lyndersay also acknowledged the power of social media, saying:
There is now more to effective communication of the festival’s virtues than just traditional media. There are bloggers, social media attractors and documentarians working aggressively on commenting on and recording the festival in a way that goes well beyond what we see in the coverage done by local media.
If someone is extending the public understanding of Carnival with good results and an impressive audience online, they are likely to be doing it on their own dime. Should they be punished for that by having daunting fees levied on them or rewarded for their educated engagement with the event?
The simple truth is that these fees have ruined the coverage of Carnival. Imposing hefty fees on people producing documents recording Carnival may seem to be a good idea for the people receiving the cash (no doubt a pittance to the bandleaders who have pressed for it), but it has created a lowest common denominator ethos among those who do produce such publications and broadcasts.
There is no room for careful thought, intellectual analysis or adventurous image creation in such documents. They must ensure a return on their investment, who we now have Carnival “magazines” with cover to cover images of half-naked women and little else. These documents must make their money back, inclusive of the fees harvested in the dubious name of copyright early in the dance, and the results have been putrid for more than a decade now.
Even if the fees were removed this year, it will take decades to get back to the pinnacle of such Carnival records.
Both photographers tempered their criticism with tangible suggestions for improvement. Hadeed felt that “an open dialogue between the stakeholders and the photographers is absolutely necessary”:
Unfortunately, unless there are clearly defined standards as to what should be provided for media accreditation, along with some training for those members who police judging points, photographers will always be open to the hostility of the people working for NCBA, Pan Trinbago etc. Regardless if you have a pass or not, the video teams get preference, and the photographers are constantly pushed, shoved and beaten at will by the misplaced anger of officials who take their position as if they were the guardians of the mas!
I ask that the organizations responsible for accreditation take responsibility for their decision making by simply inviting all of the stakeholders to meet and seek responsible solutions that address the breadth and depth of the issues at hand.
Lyndersay suggested several ways to revamp the process:
Loosen the restrictions of official access to Carnival in the interests of getting more of the record into the public domain. It can only improve the festival and bring more paying visitors to T&T.
Acknowledge the importance of documentarians and new media practitioners in bringing more attention to the festival, particularly those aspects of it which are dying through a lack of attention.
Improve the actual accommodations. Better line of sight angles and preplanning of the actual visual coverage of the event would satisfy more image makers and lead to better images emerging from Carnival 2014.
Ensure that accredited image makers actually have a chance to do the work they have come to do. This isn’t a party for us. Control your stages with clear rules or let madness reign.
Remove the fees for documentary publication in print and video for local producers. What’s happened since they were imposed has been far more costly than any money that’s been earned.
As everything about Carnival becomes shorter and more pointed, it begins to resemble nothing less than a gladius on which we are relentlessly impaling our creative future.
An effective copyright regime for Carnival will call for work to earn the real rewards that are due, but everyone’s too busy lining up at the trough to lap up much easier money, even if it's only a thin gruel.
Visit Nicholas Laughlin's flickr photostream.