Visit Trinidad and Tobago during its annual Carnival celebrations and you are sure to see certain characters — Blue Devils, Fancy Sailors, Dames Lorraine, Moko Jumbies — and photographer Maria Nunes, playing just as integral a role as the rest of the Carnival cast by capturing it all.
Now, some of her best pictures (and the magic behind them) have come together in a spectacular coffee table book, “In a World of Their Own”, which honours the “Carnival dreamers and makers” that Nunes has had the privilege and joy of photographing year after year.
At the April 24, 2018 launch, Nunes called the book her “ode to Carnival” and talked about the “immense gratitude” she felt while chronicling the adventures of “the incredible people who dream and make Carnival”. Nunes describes her work as “seeing from the inside”, a perfect encapsulation of the book's achievement as an insider's guide to Carnival traditions.
In the poetic words of Shivanee Ramlochan, who penned the book's foreword, Nunes acts as both witness and historian:
To say these photographs have been snapped is to handle them carelessly: they have been made, fired in their own kiln of understanding […] The photographs listen. They contemplate. They return to the sites of Carnival innovation year in, year out. Then they record.
Many stalwarts of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival describe the festival as their “religion”; if so, Nunes has worshipped at its altar with awe, wonder and reverence, and her book allows us a peek into the splendour of the promised land. Global Voices sat down with Nunes to talk about “In a World of Their Own”.
Global Voices (GV): Prior to you taking photography by the horns and using it to chronicle some of the most compelling aspects of Trinidad and Tobago’s national festival, you were probably best known in the Caribbean as a golfer. How did a childhood hobby become your full-time job?
Maria Nunes (MN): I had been working in the golf world for ten years and reached a point where I thought it was time to move on, that I’d done what I could do. I’d played my part in some major projects while I was the General Manager of St. Andrew’s Golf Club and felt I’d made a real contribution; it was time to close that chapter of my life. I remember I had gone hiking one day, and taken my camera. The speckled light in the forest really made the photos come alive — that made a deep impression on me. Then, there was quite a specific moment in 2009 when someone I knew very well died in a terrible accident. That really shook me up and made me ask myself some hard questions. The outcome was deciding that I would head off on my own into self-employment in photography. It was a very scary thing to do at the time. I really didn’t know how I was going to make it work.
GV: Enter Carnival. What did it have to offer and what have you learned from photographing it?
MN: From the time I first photographed Carnival [in 2007] I was captivated by all the colour, the creativity, the energy. Most of all I think the energy, the spirit of Carnival quickly drew me in. Carnival is such a vast, layered world. There’s so much going on inside that world. It’s full of so many interesting people. This is the greatest thing that Carnival has to offer — the people who dream and make mas’ [short for ‘masquerade,’ the creation of Carnival costumes]. There is so much history to Carnival and this is one of the things that I was immediately fascinated by, to learn that history, to dig deeper and deeper into it. Photographing Carnival has most of all made me deepen my interest in people. It’s made me want to go beyond the surface and really get to understand just how important the traditions in Carnival are to the bigger story of who we are in Trinidad and Tobago.
GV: Tell us about the idea for your book, “In a World of Their Own”, and how it came about.
MN: Last year marked ten years that I’d been photographing Carnival, and I thought this was a good milestone to mark through publishing a book of my work — and to make the most of the opportunity it presented to offer some of the perspectives that I’ve developed about mas’ and the people who make it. The concept behind the book was to present imagery of the contemporary expression of what is defined as traditional mas’, and to focus attention on some of its key creators, not only through photographs, but also by juxtaposing their actual voices in verbatim text. I chose this approach because I have been moved by the remarkable people who dedicate their lives — many of them on a year round basis — to Carnival art forms. A significant part of my photography has become a conscious decision to bear witness to their commitment and creativity, which is often lost or overlooked within the wider canvas of Carnival as a whole. This book gives voice to these extraordinary men and women, takes the reader inside the mas’ to see Carnival through their eyes, and shares the deep wonder, admiration and respect I have for them.
GV: What was the process like?
MN: It was a collaborative process [with Robert and Christopher Publishers]. What was key was the decision that the book would tell a story. I’d shared the importance of place to me in Carnival, of certain streets in Port of Spain, of locations outside of the capital city, like Paramin and Couva. My publishers saw that would give shape to the book; still, it was very difficult to arrive at the final image selections. At times, it was hard to let go of some photographs I’m very attached to. Hardest of all was having to accept that some people wouldn’t end up in the book. When it’s people you know well, that’s really tough. The photos that made the final cut then went to the book's designer, Richard Rawlins. I think he did something really beautiful with the book, including drawing a most magical illustration at the very beginning that immediately establishes that special — and spacial — sense of place.
GV: The book is really a treasure map to the heart and soul of Trinidad and
Tobago Carnival — a veritable calendar of events that lets readers get deep into the belly of the thing. How do you achieve such intimacy in your photographs?
MN: It’s one of those intangible things. My camera has been my passport into the worlds that interest me. It’s made me take the time to get to know people. I think if you approach something with love and positivity, people respond to you with a lot of generosity. At times there might be some initial barriers, but if you take the time to listen to why their barriers are up, you learn so much. You have to take the time to build relationships with people.
GV: In the book, rapso artist Wendell Manwarren describes Carnival as “energies” — it’s a give and take. How do you navigate that forceful power between participant and spectator, and channel it into images that resonate?
MN: For me it’s about immersion. It’s about going all out, no half way business. Also, as a photographer I see myself as a participant too, not a spectator.
GV: The book's images and text allow your subjects to tell their own stories. There is wisdom in these pages. How important was it for you allow the mas’ makers to chart their course in these pages?
MN: It was vital to me that this book be an opportunity to hear voices that might not ordinarily be listened to. What they have to say is full of depth. From getting to know people who dream and make Carnival, who live and die for mas’, I’ve gained so much wisdom and insight. I felt this needed to be shared to help break stereotypes, to give respect where it is due.
MN: It means a lot to me to commit not just their photograph, but their names to the written record in this way. Some of them are well known and some not so well known outside the circle of hardcore Carnival people, but they are giants in their own right. It’s my way of showing deep respect and making my contribution to the record that future generations can reference.
GV: It's clear that the Carnival experience is a metaphor for life. What are some of your favourite life lessons that the mas’ makers shared?
MN: There are some real gems in the book. One that I love is from stilt walker [known as Moko Jumbies in Trinidad and Tobago Carnival] Kemoi Harper: ‘If you can’t take pushing, please learn to take it because it good for your own self.’ Traditional mas’ designer Tracey Sankar-Charleau acknowledged the deep roots of our Carnival tradition when she said, ‘These things are real, it’s not just folklore. We say it’s just a story, but it’s not. I firmly believe it was people who, at some point, were wronged — and it left its mark.’
GV: Your book challenges the perception that traditional mas’ is dying by highlighting the people who show up for this creation ritual year after year. What's your response to the naysayers?
MN: Take the time to take a closer look at what people are creating every year off the beaten track. I hope the book offers an alternative perspective to the overused refrain that traditional mas’ is mainly the concern of an older generation. To be sure, some of the traditions face more challenges than others: Black Indian, for example, is one that is in the hands of just a few people today, but those few are committed to its survival. This book is a way of honouring that kind of commitment. There is a younger generation bringing new energy to mas’ and actively taking the mantle of responsibility for cultural vibrancy from their elders. Their creativity is a real-time response within the canvas of Carnival as a whole; their work is the marriage of new ideas with tradition. Their work is not dead, it’s very alive. What they are facing is the increasing marginalisation of what they do, and I hope my book helps to draw attention to the beauty and vibrancy of the traditions right under our noses if we would just take the time to look beyond the surface.
GV: By your choice of subject, you have charged yourself with the responsibility of archiving an incredibly precious resource. How do you feel about being a custodian of our Carnival history?
MN: It’s my joy and privilege to commit myself to work that might have some lasting value. There’s so much to be done. I hope the book might influence more people to take up this work. I deeply believe in the importance of history, of actively working to substantially contribute to what is committed to the record for the benefits to be derived in the immediate here and now, and for the benefit of those to come long after we are gone. Each generation has to bear its part in this kind of responsibility. I find a tremendous amount of meaning in playing my part.
GV: Are the internet and social media having an effect on Carnival's evolution — and is there room for the deep, symbolic traditions and the street party to coexist?
MN: I’d like to answer this with the words of Wendell Manwarren who is quoted in the book: ‘When we look back and we see how the Carnival has changed and what the arc of time will show, 30, 40 years from now, where will this arc end up? Because this will evolve into something else. We don’t know what it is. But we know sure as anything that the Carnival will not die, it will continue to claim itself.’ Social media is certainly playing a role in the way Carnival is evolving. It’s up to those of us active in the Carnival space to use its power to engage in what we believe in. Is there space for both genres to co-exist? Absolutely!
GV: Is there one photograph in this book (or a few!) that you think captures the core of Carnival?
MN: Carnival’s core is so big, so wide, so multi-dimensional, so beautiful that it would take many books, many photographers, many photographs…