Above: Angelo Bissessarsingh flips through his newly published book in January, 2016. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.
BitDepth#1079 for February 07, 2017
Angelo Bissessarsingh is gone.
For much of last week that long expected news, sharpened to a keen edge by a life’s clock that ticked down relentlessly, rocketed through Facebook, the online platform that gave his project, the Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago, its first breath of life.
The young historian, an amateur in the most lucid expression of the word, a person who does something for love, was one of local social media’s first rock stars.
His fame was birthed in the medium, not transplanted there and debates on historical fact and interpretation were already blowing hot and heavy in discussions on that page before a single column by the gifted writer made it into print.
It was in print; an expansion of the project made possible by the intervention of former Guardian Editor-in-Chief Judy Raymond, that Bissessarsingh’s writing stepped to another level.
He tightened up the work, no doubt guided by his patron editor and began pursuing it with even greater rigor and preciseness, urged by the demands of a weekly deadline.
In the self-selecting world of Facebook fandom, there are those who cheer and those who troll and it quickly becomes clear who’s who.
In the paper, anyone might chance upon the work and it soon became clear that Bissessarsingh relished this new challenge.
The Guardian column did not make Angelo Bissessarsingh, but it made him better, by challenging him to write continuously and for an audience of uncertain character and provenance.
I first contacted Angelo Bissessarsingh in February 2010 about his other great passion, vintage cars, hoping to document a car restoration project for my series of photo essays. He quickly responded with a name, a phone number and advice about what I might expect to encounter in the field.
I never did get around to pursing the lead, but I never forgot his enthusiasm about what I was up to.
In January 2016 I accepted a no-brainer assignment to photograph him at his working home, a room at his aunt Ann-Marie Bissessar’s residence.
This was the engine room of the last years of his life, a time of reconciliation with his fate and an admirable determination to do rather than to lament, to act rather than reflect.
Angelo Bissessarsingh has been living with his diagnosis for months by this time, but this was no dead man walking. This was a man alive and cherishing life.
We chatted about how he worked – and he was as curious about my own systems as I was about his space – while we toured the places in his aunt’s home that he trafficked most often.
We finally settled on his bedroom, one half dedicated to a writer’s den, facing away from the resting end, which sported an antique four poster bed and his collection of vintage model cars, boxed for posterity.
This is where the Virtual Museum was updated, his column crafted and his books polished for publication.
It was there, surrounded by collected objects from a past era, notes, photos and references that I came to understand something about how Bissessarsingh’s perspective on history was shaped and became so popular.
As he wrote, he faced an antique “press” a handcrafted wooden box intended for clothes. While he lay down to think or muse before sleep, he would stare up at old wrought iron draped with wispy mosquito netting.
It must have been like that scene with Christopher Reeve in the misty romance Somewhere in Time, where the character surrounds himself with artifacts of an era to travel back in time.
Immersed in facts, visual in his appreciation of what was, Angelo Bissessarsingh took a nation along with him on these journeys and brought back a new appreciation for so much that has shaped T&T.
There are custodians of cold historical fact who will find aspects of his work unnecessarily imaginative and in decades to come, may work to deprecate its importance.
All history is a matter of perspective. Winners write the accounts of a nation’s forging and losers, well, lose.
Until he closed his eyes for the last time, never to return with his fascinating stories from our largely opaque past, Angelo Bissessarsingh chose the role of a winner who knew the dice would ultimately and fatally turn against him.
That didn’t stop him from getting up every morning and going back to work, and it is that stubborn, determined and ultimately hopeful resolve that I found so remarkable while we worked on the pictures.
Those two hours were just part of my day. For Bissessarsingh, they were a substantial deduction from the reducing balance of his lifeline.
There was no sense of that while we got the pictures done. He was completely immersed in the experience, far more curious about what I was doing than I was about him.
I like people who work. I’ve never been shy about admitting that. I’m probably more than a little annoying in championing the cause of those who do.
Angelo Bissessarsingh did his work. He did so in the face of spirit crushing circumstances and taught us all not only how we lived, but how we should aspire to live.