Witnessing our history

“THERE IS currently no national, central registry of photographs.”

Kim Johnson, head of the Carnival Institute, made this point at a recent event celebrating two photographers who have very deliberately set out to document our country through images. They are Maria Nunes, recognised for her work in the sphere of culture and the arts, and Apoesho Mutope, widely acknowledged as the photo-documenter of the 1970s.

In this age of the ever-present selfie, images on the Internet and pictures being posted, shared, uploaded, downloaded at incredible speeds — with all that is out there, is there really a need for a national registry of images?

Maria and Apoesho provided an answer to this question. As “documentary photographers” their sense of purpose is intimately intertwined with a sense of history, an understanding of moment and occasion. Their photographs are a way of witnessing and engaging history, even having a conversation with history as Maria commented.

For Apoesho, capturing moments during 1970 was very personal for him. For instance, as he showed us images of the funeral of Basil Davis, one of the largest funerals in our history, the memories that flooded back made it difficult for him to even continue his presentation.

The point about memory is significant for Maria. The apparent absence of a national philosophy for documenting our heritage, arts and culture has added greater significance to her work. From Claxton Bay, to Moruga and Belmont, Maria is there documenting tamboo-bamboo, Phagwa, stilt-walking, Emancipation, Divali, stick-fighting. But she also captures children in the community, cultural experts at work in their environment and the faces of elders as they tell their stories.

In a world with billions of photos, one writer points out that images by photojournalists and documenters are the ones that remain the most compelling. Globally, there are iconic images that not only captured a sense of the time, but played a role in changing the course of history.

During the American Civil War, Alexander Gardner’s images of bodies on the battlefield literally brought the severity of the war home to Americans, on both sides of the divide.

In 1985, the National Geographic’s front page image of a young Afghan girl with striking sea green eyes, looking out from under her head scarf, drew international focus to the suffering of refugees. And in 2013, “The woman in the red dress” photo captured a Turkish riot policeman using tear gas against a protester in a red dress in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, fuelling debate about continuing struggles for basic human freedoms.

At home, I am always struck by historical images of Port of Spain and how, in many ways, it still looks the same — not necessarily a good thing.

The photo of Eric Williams with his trademark dark glasses and hearing aid, images of East Indians at Nelson Island, our scarlet ibis, Makandal Daaga in full flight, Auntie Beryl, “La Belle Rosette,” in dance pose, and the remains of our ancestor from the First Peoples, “Banwari Man,” curled up like a foetus. Writing this piece caused the realisation that these images are integral to my national identity, my sense of history and place in this world.

There was a sense of history as our family celebrated independence this week. The generations, growing, changing, leaving. We documented, not for now, but for a time when all we may have are the photos of that moment.

So too with a nation still trying to find its centre. Our country needs a central repository of images to capture not just who we are, but who we were, and to inspire who we may become.

Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN


"Witnessing our history"

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