Follow-up on Color and Presentation

A Follow-up on Color:

On February 17th, I posted a Question of Color, in which I reflected upon some of the challenges to making decisions about whether or not to work in color or black and white, especially when the decision is left to be made after the shoot, as it is with digital photography.

This question arose again when I was post-processing my images from the Blue Devils in Paramin, Maraval on Carnival Monday. A big part of the Blue Devils character is, obviously, their blue color, so black and white images would leave out that element. On the other hand, some of the same problems with color came up with these images, in particular the question of whether or not the blue paint was visually distracting from other content within the images, like the facial expressions of the devils or the on-lookers. Another factor for consideration was the night's poor lighting, the Devil's rapid movements, and my lack of a quality external flash. As a result, some of the images, which I find to be of a nice moment, look really crappy, but a black and white conversion diminishes the visual impact of the technical deficiencies. An example of such is the image below, of a Devil attempting to scare a nonchalant onlooker, and failing. I find her body language, the way she cooly drags from her cigarette and cocks her head to the side while maintaining eye contact with the masked devil to very sexy, an unexpected feeling given context of the Devil's activities. It's a nice moment, but it was dark, there were no street lights, and the only flash I have is my camera's built-in flash. The result is lighting that is too harsh and lacks atmosphere (see below).

When I was working on these images, I was trying to decide whether to publish them in color or in black and white, but instead, I chose to do both. My final image set consists of 6 color images and 5 black and white images. Although photographers usually stick to either all color or exclusively black and white in a single presentation, I've seen a few photographers successfully employ a mixture of color and black and white in their work. One of my favorite examples is Matt and Melissa Eich's multimedia presentation, Love in the First Person, published by MediaStorm.

Although the story is told predominately in color, there are two black and white images within the first 60 seconds. The piece also incorporates black and white video. Overall, it's a practically flawless piece of multimedia storytelling and I think part of its strength is its selective use of black and white images to evoke a different feel.

I suppose the real question is why you chose to present an image in color or black and white. With most artistic decisions, there should be some thought involved in it, and technical deficits probably don't constitute a good enough reason. Regardless, click here to see my image set from the Paramin Blue Devils and to decide for yourself if I made the right decision or if the color/black and white combination is just awkward.

A Follow-up on Presentation:

On February 26th, I wrote about how I was struggling with photography and I wrote a fairly convoluted brain purge exploring why I felt I was struggling, and some ways that I planned on going about getting myself un-stuck in my photography. One thing that I noted to be important was how a photographer chooses to present his or her images, and how the ordering of the images can be important. I used an expression borrowed from biology textbooks about how form mirrors function, and I'd like to present a perfect example, also from MediaStorm, Common Ground by Scott Strazzante.

For fourteen years, Scott Strazzante followed, and photographed, two families, the Cagwins and the Grabenhofers, as the Cagwin's farm home is demolished and the Grabenhofers move into the housing development that takes its place. The seven and a half minute long piece compares life for the two families, but its the presentation of the ideas that tells the story so convincingly. The piece is filled with carefully selected images presented side by side, a shot of the Cagwins next to one of the Grabenhofers, and although throughout the piece, the moments depicted of the Cagwins all take place years before the Grabenhofers' home was even built, the side by side image presentation conveys Strazzante's idea of Common Ground so perfectly, and so beautifully. Strazzante's conscious decisions about what form to use to most effectively tell the story is not only limited to his selection and pairing of images. There is a very compelling sequence at 1:43 in which the Grabenhofer father is teaching his son how to ride a bike, and part of what makes the sequence so compelling is Strazzante's use of stop motion animation instead of video. The still images, presented rapidly in sequence to give a jagged, uneven, video-like effect is so much more effective than the same moments would have been with video. In this case, the stop motion animation mirrors the son's unsteadiness on his bike, and emphasizes that all of life is just made up of individual moments, like individual still photographs. In the words of the famous Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Life is once, forever".


The image above is from a set of images that I'm not very proud of, from the 3canal Jam-It! rehearsal (February 2nd) and Show (February 8th) at Queen's Hall.

I have been struggling with my photography for the last couple of weeks and I'm not entirely sure why that is, or how to get out of this photographic funk. Each time I go shooting, I come back and review my images with much disappointment. I keep finding the images technically weak and thematically understimulating. I don't think all of my recent images are terrible, but they are nothing that I can feel proud of... nothing that I want to send home to my parents or print for a portfolio.

I think part of what's going on is that thus far, I've only been photographing whatever events and places I happen to be around so I'm inherently lacking the conscious engagement that comes with deliberately choosing your subjects. I think it's time that I start thinking more about what space I want to occupy while I'm here and what role I want my photography to play in helping to form my own space in Trinidad. While I wrote a few weeks ago about the documentary value of photography, "documenting" is far too wide of a task for me to actually tackle.

One of the things that I want to do while in Trinidad, which applies not only to my photography, but also to my studies at UWI and my general social and life goals, is to live, study, and experience life here in a way that can only be experienced here. I want to study topics that I can only study here, I want to make friends from here who can show me a side of life that only someone my age from here can show me, and I want to take full photographic advantage of this unique set of experiences I have here, that I can't get elsewhere in the world. Somehow (although I haven't figured it out yet) I want to leave here in May with a collection of images that I can carry with me throughout life to remind me of the particular chance circumstances that resulted in whatever particular experience I had here.

On that note, sometimes when I feel lost with photography, I find it helpful to look at other photographers work in order to consider styles I would like to emulate and incorporate into my own work and also to consider how different people approach photographing various subjects. One photographer that I've recently come across on Lightstalkers is a New Orleans based photographer named Andy Levin. The first of Mr. Levin's images that I noticed were his photographs of Haiti which are, obviously, very relevant right now, and particularly given the consciousness of the destruction in Haiti throughout the Caribbean. His images obviously tackle serious themes of devastation, poverty, and death, but his images are also very human, and in my opinion, very hopeful. Mr. Levin also has a superb photoessay entitled Remembering Katrina: A Carnival of Suffering which is also filled with deeply powerful, and sometimes deeply difficult images of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina which hit New Orleans, Louisiano hard and killed over 1,800 Americans. One of the elements of Mr. Levin's photographs that I admire is that they are not always pretty. Sometimes, if the theme of an image is something dark, it does not make sense for the depiction to be contrary to that. Form should mirror function, but that's not always easy. As a photographer, I always want my images to be pretty. This consciousness of form mirroring function is something that I want to keep trying to incorporate into my own work. This first time I've ever felt like I did that was with my images of the Kalinda Stickfighting Finals.

Another photographer that I've recently come across, whose work will hopefully inspire me, perhaps in a less morbid way than Mr. Levins work on Haiti and Katrina is a Russian photographer named Mikhail Galustov. Mr. Galustov, who I also found on Lighstalkers, is currently based in Afghanistan. While Mr. Galustov has photographed some politically and socially difficult places including Afghanistan and Caucasus, I am really intrigued by his portrait work. Mr. Galustov has potraits of military people, families, women, men, children, and each one is visually different yet somehow consistent. He also does interesting pairings of some portraits, which leads me to another thought about how images are presented. I think it's important to consider how your images fit in the context of other images around them. In the context of a set of images, which image you chose to place before or after an image will affect how your viewer perceives that particular image. That's one of the reasons why I prefer organized photo essays that present images in a calculated sequential order over images haphazardly presented in chronological order of uploads, like on a Flickr photostream, which to me feels like you've just vomited up an incoherent mess of images.

I don't know how much logical sense this post makes but I guess to sum up:

1. I feel lost and confused with my photography right now.
2. I think I need to decide WHAT I want to photograph in order to get out of this funk.
3. I'd like to keep working on mirroring form and function.
4. I want to give the presentation of my images as much thought as I give the individual images themselves.

Ready... Set... Go!

Carnival 2K10

This is my flickr set of images from Carnival 2K10 in Trinidad. Images are from Canboulay Reenactments in Port of Spain, Kid's Carnival, J'ouvert, and of Blue Devils. 

A Question of Color

In the world of photography, there is much debate over which is best: film or digital, color or black and white? These are questions that intrigue me, partly because I cannot indiscriminately answer them. When working with film, I feel an intimate, almost parental, relationship with each image I produce. I cradle the image from its conception at exposure through its chemical development, and see its darkroom maturation into a full sized printed image. Film is a more time consuming process, but the results are worth it; true black and white prints are brilliant. On the other hand, digital is much more versatile and quick to publish. I can shoot 600 frames at one event, come home and after only a few hours of post-processing work, I can publish those images to the internet for the world, literally, to see. When working with digital, you also have the option of working in color or in black and white. Many photographers argue, and I would agree, that when the end product is a black and white print, film is the obvious choice, but if your ultimate goal is online publication, how does a photographer choose?

Thus far, I have been shooting exclusively digital, and working mostly in color because Trinidad is an intoxicatingly colorful place, especially during Carnival season. Recently, however, I shot the National Kalinda Stickfighting Finals and had myself wondering. The Boismen's costumes were mostly satin and all brightly colorful, adorned with mirrors and other bright additions, meant to distract the opponent. After reviewing my photographs of the night, I found that the adornments and bright costumes were doing just that -- distracting me from what I wanted my eye to focus on: the facial expressions of the competitors. It was a difficult decision, though, because some photographs I thought actually worked better in color than in black and white. Take the photograph, above, of a defeated boisman smiling and bleeding onto the collar of his costume as he exits the Gayelle. I think this image works well in color partly because of the hazy feel to the image and partly because there is just so much going on (the bright lamp in the background, the blood drips on the collar, the photographers and concerned teammates swarming him) that everything around him is almost spinning, but his inward expression of content with a good match comes through in color, and I was concerned that converting to black and white would make the blood stains less obvious.

Other images, like this one below, however, I think work much better in black and white.

In the color version of this photograph, I find the bright yellow jersey panels and headband to be too distracting, so I prefer the black and white version where the eye is drawn first to the faces, and secondly around to the rest of the image. In the end, I chose to publish all the images in black and white because I like the atmosphere in black and white. In color, I feel like I'm focused on the novelty of the bright costumes, or focused too much on the bright red blood in some of the images, but in black and white, I get an old newspaper photograph of a boxing match sort of feel from them and the costumes, and the blood fade to the background. Since one of my overall goals is to, through photography, conveying the universality of humanity around the world, I feel that working in black and white, in this case, makes more thematic sense.

It's going to be a tricky question for me to answer as I progress through the semester. Should I continue to shoot in digital for the ease of online publication and versatility in deciding whether to publish in color or in black and white after-the-fact, or should I shoot in film and commit myself to black and white before even reviewing the images. If I continue to shoot digital, should I publish more of my images in black and white in an attempt to strip away the distractions of "paradise" and costumes to get at, instead, the people that live here, or would I be crazy to leave out such a big part of the local culture, particularly in photographs of mas, by not taking full advantage of all the colors that weave themselves into this culture? For now, I think I'll take it one photoset at a time, and see where the images take me.

For more images from the National Kalinda Stickfighting Finals, click on either of the above images, or click here.

Glitter the Stage in Mas

Last week we attended the Preliminary show for King and Queen adult carnival costumes, bringing out more than forty participants for males and females. This contest continues on to pick one king and one queen to own the carnival on parade day. Exceeding what I expected, costumes can be several times bigger than the person carrying it, made of iron, feathers, glitter, mesh, paint, and a lot of beads. These costumes were large and elaborate, showing the craftsman ship of the designer and celebration of various themes. Participants were not only judged on the costume’s aesthetic design and portability given its purpose, but also on their stage deliverance of the costume’s essence. Each taking a turn, the contestants smiled, marched, wined, and posed all over the stage to entertain judges, all to popular soca music even I could recognize. Though I was impressed by the massive size of these backpacks pranced or wheeled around the stage, it must also be a test of strength for those participants who carried the decor without wheel support. Yes, there were a few participants who collapsed at the event, on or off stage, but overall, the event went well.

I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to be at stage front taking photos with the various media crews. I also found that my role at stage front involved more than just taking photos, and discretely dancing to my favorite tunes. Some contestants needed moral support. At moments where a person looked nervous, they looked at me bobbing in the front and remembered to smile. At another time, the tribal mask fell off one guy’s costume, making him unfocused. All I could do was to nod my head and smile, as if to say ‘it’s ok, the show must go on,’ because I know that the performer never picks up a malfunctioned prop while in the moment, they have to work it into the show somehow. Then after pacing the stage a few laps he wheeled back over the mask to pick it up and held it near his face while grinning at me, as though he won a grand prize or found an old friend. I gladly photographed his triumphant moment and suddenly felt like I was meant to be there at their feet, beneath the stage, between the lights and audience.

It has been an interesting task to not only manually create the costumes by painting or stapling or gluing, but to document the creation process step-by-step and then showcase to judges. The designer even explained her theme idea to me and showed original sketches of the various costumes. Given that my purpose for attending the children’s masquerade was to chaperone the Lilliput sailor band named “S S UPRISING,” my initial job was to help assemble the banner, direct members to our tent, and put lipstick on the girls for a grand stage entrance (I do admit that being a cosmetician is a real skill and art in itself. Luckily I was handed one universal lipstick to apply). Even the three-year-olds were excited about dressing up and jumping on the stage in front an audience and judges. Too cute! I really appreciate Noble Douglas allowing me to help in the mas production, even though I came into the process at crunch time. I really felt needed and welcomed at Lilliput, not only for the mas camp production but in dance classes and general willingness to host me.

I was also really impressed by the children’s costumes, which were suited for ages 12-15 girls and boys. The designs, materials, and themes, were very sophisticated and festive. Even the size of the costume did not halt the participants from prancing around the stage with smiles, making the costume show a real performance. They were also judged on ability to portray the character. Theme varied from traditional characters or attire to dragons, the rainforest, and even makeshift pirate ships! I was also pleased to see that there was a lot of good sportsmanship present between the contestants as winners for various categories and placements were announced. Parents were supportive on and off stage, adding to this feeling of celebration and togetherness. In the end, I really enjoyed my experience in the Savannah of Port of Spain, Trinidad, encountering both visual arts and performance at the same time.


One of the documentary photography opportunities that I've had while out here was to get on stage with the Steelpan Orchestras competing during the 2010 Panorama Semi-Finals. These are my images from the competition.

Documentary Value of Photography

Machinery in motion on ensilage cutter. Rockville, Maryland. Jack Delano, May 1940

Since arriving in Trinidad, I have been amazed by all of the documentary photography opportunities presented to me. My general approach to photography is that taking a photograph can be likened to writing a history textbook. Whether I photograph a major National cultural event in Trinidad, or simply ordinary Trinidadians buying groceries at the market, the permanence of an image still is a record of that moment. As with history textbooks, no photograph is objective. I was recently discussing this topic with a photographer who received his Bachelor's degree in History, and he offered this perspective as both a photographer and a historian:

Most of written history is quite subjective. Authors will interpret evidence differently from one another. They will find different truths based on how they, as ethical historians, interpret the evidence. For this reason, people who want to learn about history must read multiple texts from a variety of sources, synthesizing the information to make their own informed determination. In other words, there is almost never a single unwavering truth. Documentary photography is similar in that a photographer has a professional and ethical responsibility to capture and present an image—or series of images—that most closely represents the truth, an inherently subjective task. And, just like the reader of history, the viewer of a documentary photograph should always approach the image with a healthy dose of skepticism.
-Nathan A. Kirschaum, 2010

I am so fascinated by this big world we live in, and so excited at how this world is changing, that I want to contribute to leaving a record of the state of these places at the time that I encountered them. While I have different motivations for photographing a subject, at the core, it's the power of the image. Consider the images from the United States Farm Security Administration from the Great Depression until World War II. The United States Government hired American photographers to simply go and take pictures of every day America. The result is that now anyone can go online, and search this database to find over 160,000 images of our American history. Not all of the images are of any "significant" event, or even in the grand scheme of things, of any particularly "significant" individuals, but it is documentation of where our country was, and how our people were. Sixty years later, I can go online, search for my hometown and find the above image of
farm equipment from back when my Washington, D.C. Metropolitan hometown was all farmland. As a visually minded person, I am more excited by images than historical texts, so having images of my country's history at my fingertips is unbelievable.

Now I am here in Trinidad, so I am photographing Trinidad. While there is of course documentary value in photographing this place regardless, Trinidad is in an interesting political and social position right now, which suggests to me that Trinidad today is going to be very different from the Trinidad to come. My Caribbean civilization professor, Ms. Sunity Maharaj explained to our class that post-colonial Trinidad is engaged in a sort of social dance, where different groups of people in Trinidad, in order to get along, are making space for the other while the other makes space for them. Trinidad is a place filled with many different religions and ethnic groups, and one might expect that all of those differences to clash, but in Trinidad, each group accomodates the other in order for all to survive culturally. The result is that the Indian population becomes Indo-Trinidadian, the African population becomes Afro-Trinidadian, and so forth so at the core, all people are Trinidadian, and to be Trinidadian is to have a sort of creole nature. With all this cultural negotiation occurring around us all here and now, Trinidad is unlikely to remain static, but photographic documentation can help leave a record of where a people have been and where they are going.

Some of my first documentary photography images from Trinidad are from the market in Tunapuna. With these images, I am beginning to explore how I go about documenting my encounters here.

Man in the Market. Tunapuna, Trinidad and Tobago. Andrea Wise, January 2010.

Which people do I chose to photograph? Which places? Which moments do I chose to immortalize? I think markets are a good place to start because of the routine nature of the moments you find. While carnival festivities are colorful and glamorous, and while I'd like to explore the role of mas in Trinidad culture, Trinidad is more than its tropical paradise stereotype of a place where beautiful women dance in the streets in sexy costumes adorned in sequins and feathers. Trinidadians also buy food, and have families, and go to work, and live lives of routine like those in the rest of the world. As such, entering the Tunapuna market, I looked for the faces in the market, and tried to capture the human moments that I found -- whether it was a young boy holding a toy car and looking at the price for parsley while his mother buys vegetables, or a pair of butchers joking around and asking for their picture to be taken. I wanted to photograph a woman arranging her peppers for sale, and an older gentleman looking sternly around with a gaze that reminded me of the way my late grandfather would look at me when he was concerned that my brother and I were playing too rough. I enjoyed the colorful produce in the market and I enjoyed seeing foods unfamiliar to me, but at the core, once you look past the exotic novelty of seeing pig tail and goat head for sale, the really interesting part is simply the people going about their daily lives.

For more of my images from the tunapuna market, please click on the image above or click here.

ONE: Challenge of Portraits

I have found myself challenged by portraits recently.

I think that the personal is political, to borrow an oft quoted phrase. In this, I’m exploring how my own positioning as a young, white, American, bisexual woman with a camera can fit into Trinidad culture, or not, and how this will effect what photographs I can and will take.

I am concerned and mindful of a recent history of colonial powers in Trinidad, and in the Caribbean in general, but have only the faintest specifics of this history in relation to photography in Trinidad. I was studying abroad in South Africa the semester before this one, and there was also questioning my positionality, and desire to create portraits. I chickened out, if I can use such a term. What I mean is that I avoided asking for portraits of strangers. I became hyper aware of the history there of documentary photography in it’s focus on phenotypical documentation to support racial doctrine establishing that Europeans were more evolved physically, and therefore superior. Rather, I took portraits of friends in social situations, or portraits in my work environment.

With this knowledge of colonial interaction with relation to photography in South Africa, I am very unsure of how to approach portraits here in Trinidad. In South Africa, I stayed clear of shooting out of the window of a mini-bus while driving through various townships, and never asked for photographs, or took photographs of people living in these giant slums. In Trinidad, an equivalent is Sea Lots. I brought up this same discomfort there, as I was encouraged to photograph people liming around the shacks constructed of corrugated steel and found wood. However, as in South Africa, I found that I could not feel comfortable enough to snap a picture of men standing in front of a rusted car, for instance.

There seems to be an understanding too, that in introducing myself as a student, that I will be taking non-exploitative photographs. The assumption that I will not be gaining anything from the capture of a particular light on someone’s face is a fallacy. Even if it is so much as a simple accolade from a professor, or the inclusion of such a photograph in a brochure for this Trinity-in-Trinidad program, I am gaining.

I feel as though such documentation, by my part, is not for any greater purpose. I do not doubt or stand against wanting to document extreme poverty in a way that inspires action, but I do not think that I am situated to do that. As an American student particularly, I don’t have a feeling of importance enough to think that my image of Sea Lots and it’s inhabitants will inspire a change in the social, political and class struggles of this particularly placed group.

Part of my worries stem too, from the fact that I am in effect, publishing these images, without express permission to post them on this blog, on my flickr account, or to show the images to others. In knowing someone, I can at least feel more comfortable that the images I produce are consensual to the highest degree possible, and should offense be taken to an image, it can be remedied because of close contact, and assumed review of images.

Avoiding portraits is certainly a way to avoid interpersonal interaction, and a way to avoid more intrapersonal dialogue on the ethics of such image taking. With that, I have no qualms in stating that it is easier for me to photograph people that I know, rather than attempting portrait photographer of relative strangers.

Christopher Cozier and I have discussed my feelings on portraiture here to some degree, and have agreed that a challenge for myself would be to attempt portraits of Trinidadians as themselves, in a location like their home. In my mind, this would therefore require an exchange, and a redefining of own subjectivity as the photographer of a subject. This would refer to the “looking back” notion that Christopher Cozier reintroduced to my Trinidadian experience. Portraits are powerful representations of people, and I feel, that in order to create a powerful image, I must also allow for the greater exposure of myself as a photographer to subject, enough to allow for an interchange and exchange of being. Then, I can feel like I am creating a portrait of a person, rather than an economical, social, racial, or sexual situation or position.

The last thing that I want to do is to take a photograph of an individual, in order to represent an entire location and an entire people. This type of namelessness for a subject, the stripping of individuality and freedom of personal expression is at odds with my own positionality and relationship to other human beings and my personal politics. It’s too reductionist in my mind, to expect, in the same way, that my own feelings here represent every artist, so I won’t claim that my feelings here are representational of all the posters. I am however, of this mindset, and am alternately looking forward to and simultaneously dreading such photographic interactions.

I expect that this photographic interchange will teach me much more about myself than about what my images can say….