Doctoral student captures Trinidad's culture through Carnival photography
Leslie Robertson Foncette is fascinated with the Blue Devils at the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival.
Covered in blue paint, outfitted with horns and wings, and blowing fire from their mouths, these wild and energetic performers are a staple of the Carnival. The annual festival, which takes place in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, is one of the most anticipated events for residents of the Caribbean island nation. The highlight is the final two-day street parade full of music, elaborate costumes (also known as “mas”), and traditional characters, of which the devils are among the most popular and enduring.
For a photographer like Foncette, the devils’ unpredictable nature poses a unique challenge. The outdoor lighting conditions, the crowds, the heat, the spray of kerosene, and the sudden brightness of the flame all combine to set up an image that’s extremely difficult to capture — and extremely gratifying when she gets it right.
“You’re at the mercy of so many elements, and you have to try and work with it,” she said with a laugh. “And I love that.”
Growing up in Trinidad, Foncette always felt closely connected to Carnival, and when she moved to the United States to attend college, it became one of her academic interests as well. While living in the Washington, D.C., area, she frequently talked with people, especially children, who were unaware of the history and cultural connections that have made Carnival what it is today.
During college, her parents gave her a camera, which she quickly began taking everywhere to photograph her experiences. After she graduated, Carnival was a perfect place to use her new skills. So in 2009, she started a photography blog to share the vibrancy of Carnival with the rest of the world and to educate future generations about the many different facets of the festival.
Now a doctoral student in the Virginia Tech Department of Sociology, Foncette sees her photography as not only an art, but also a means of documenting history and culture. Carnival is a prime example because of both its rich cultural background and its ephemeral nature. When the festival ends, the costumes are dismantled to be recycled into new works of art for next year’s celebrations. By photographing the festival over the years, she visually records the history and evolution in Carnival traditions over time.
The ways in which people preserve culture throughout history are especially interesting to Foncette. The costumes and traditions of the Trinidad Carnival date back to the emancipation of enslaved people in the Caribbean in the 1830s, drawing on African festivals and art along with reactions to colonial oppression. In documenting Carnival and other festivals, she considers questions such as: What drives people to continue these traditions? How do they change as a reaction to events in modern society?
“Black culture is amazing and complex and not easily understood,” she said. “And people have persevered to innovate it, to make it last for themselves.”
Foncette describes her style of photography as journalistic portraiture — taking pictures of people that tell a story. In each image, she tries to capture not only the person, but also the context of the place and the events that were occurring in the moment.
Over the years, she has taken pictures in places as widespread as Egypt, India, Senegal, Oman, and Cuba. Yet Trinidad and Tobago has remained her primary focus. The country’s ethnic and cultural diversity provides an endless range of subjects for her photography. “There are some images I’ve taken that look like they come right out of Nigeria or southern India,” Foncette said, “but they’re in Trinidad.”
In addition to cultural festivals like Carnival, she has photographed religious festivals, which require a different degree of respect and empathy. She has captured events such as the Hindu observance of Ganga Dhara Teerath and religious feasts in Trinidad Orisha, a belief system originating from West African Yoruba religion. While photographing such events, she seeks to honor the spiritual significance of the traditions to those who practice them.
Foncette cites her experience working in mental health as integral for learning to navigate these spaces. Like photographers, therapists frequently have to manage situations where many factors are beyond their control.
“You have to be constantly working collaboratively, treating people with dignity and respect, taking your ego outside of it,” she said. “As a photographer, it’s helped me to know how to be in this space. And as a qualitative researcher, I take those experiences into how I approach doing interviews and formulating research questions.”
Foncette is currently working on her dissertation, which investigates how adolescent girls in Trinidad and Tobago receive information and make decisions about sex. After she completes her doctorate, her goal is to continue doing research, education, and policy work on culture and gender equality. And, of course, she’ll keep taking pictures whenever she can.
According to Foncette, photography has taught her that it’s possible to get a positive outcome out of situations beyond her control. Amid the boisterous and unpredictable atmosphere of Carnival, each of her pictures preserves the joy and artistry of the festival in a single moment.
“Every time I get the shot is a prize in the moment, hearing the shutter click,” she said. “You’ve done all of this work, you’ve stood for hours, you’re exhausted, but then you put the memory card into your computer and you see the shots. And looking across the years at my images, I go, 'Wow! I’ve gotten much better.' You keep working at it and you keep learning from it, and you’re going to get the shot eventually.”
Written by Mary Crawford