Maria Nunes on photographing Carnival

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Above: All Stars at the corner of Queen and Duncan Streets on Carnival Tuesday in 2012. Photo by Maria Nunes.

I first came into contact with NCC’s photographer accreditation process in 2010. I was a novice at the time and didn’t fully understand all the workings of the system, I just wanted to get access to official venues so that I could photograph Carnival from what I thought were all the best vantage points.

As each year passed the fees to get accreditation increased and it got to the point that it cost in excess of $8,000 to get all the “stamps” required to get the pass – from Pan Trinbago (always a small amount), from NCC for stickfighting (also not excessive), and from the National Carnival Bands Association (NCBA) whose fees were getting higher and higher until they reached $5,900 and the total cost of accreditation was just over $8,000.

At that point I seriously questioned if going the route of accreditation was making any sense because it seemed to me that all it was actually giving me was access to facilities. In reality, this amounts to little more than being able to get past security at either end of the stage.

I spoke at length recently with fellow photographer Abigail Hadeed, who has been photographing Carnival for thirty years, on the issue of the facilities that should come with the accreditation we pay for. She lamented that “the accommodation for the media, especially photographers, is inadequate as there are not enough tables and chairs.

To my knowledge neither is there dedicated high speed internet access for the quick upload and distribution of images for working photojournalists both local and international. It also does not appear thought has gone into facility design to take into account the best angles to optimally photograph from.

For years I saw Noel Norton carrying a ladder into the savannah to be able to photograph from a better vantage point. We’ve also not developed proper backdrop and lighting design for kings and queens, and pan, for example, is increasingly getting more difficult to photograph. And what about the lack of security for our gear. I could go on.”

For my own part, as I delved deeper into my documentation of Carnival, I began to realise that some of the photographs that interested me the most were not to be found on the stage in the Savannah, or at any other competition venue. I was increasingly being engaged by what was happening away from the stage, off the grid, often behind the scenes.

Nonetheless, competition venues did at times provide the opportunity for the kind of photograph that I was happy to be able to capture and so I didn’t want to forego getting accreditation altogether.  I continued to feel that I needed it most of all for the traditional individuals competition which used to be at Victoria Square and has since moved to Adam Smith Square.

Documentation of this part of our Carnival captivates my interest more than anything else and I continue to want to deepen my photography of those individuals and small groups who design, make and perform their own mas creations.

I also get the occasional request for newspaper use and online placement for information posts. The income generated by this kind of use is relatively small and is typically only seasonal and uncertain in nature.

Maria Nunes

Then some changes came over the last few years because the NCBA fell out of favour with the NCC and the fee for covering carnival fell significantly.  Meanwhile my work in Carnival was expanding, but I was taking fewer photos at official venues than I was elsewhere, and was using my pass primarily for photography of Panorama and for the opportunity to use the Grand Stand in the savannah as a place to take a short rest and have lunch on Carnival Tuesday.

Years ago I also figured out that there was no advantage to having accreditation in terms of anything to do with my rights to use any photograph I took during Carnival. All the pass was giving me, in effect, was access to the stage areas.

If anyone contacted me to use any photo I’d taken over Carnival for any commercial purpose, that is, to directly promote the sale of any product, service or organization, then no matter what I paid for the pass, I would still have to find the person in the requested photograph and get their signed permission to use their image.

Most requests for my photographs have however not been for commercial use, but rather for editorial use as supporting visuals for articles on some aspect of Carnival in magazines such as Discover TnT, Caribbean Beat and Ins and Outs of Trinidad and Tobago.

I also get the occasional request for newspaper use and online placement for information posts. The income generated by this kind of use is relatively small and is typically only seasonal and uncertain in nature.

One aspect of magazine/print-related photography however needs special mention: cover photography. The cover of a magazine is what is used to sell it, therefore although the content of the magazine is editorial by nature, the cover crosses over into what would be defined as commercial use.

To give a very specific example, starting with the very first time that a photograph of mine was chosen as a Caribbean Beat cover in 2013, an image of Steffano Marcano of Paramin based 2001 Jab Molassie, I have always immediately contacted the person in the photograph to obtain their permission. 

When I got paid by the magazine I shared a meaningful part of what I received for the photo with him, and the same is true for the people in each of the subsequent covers for which I’ve had photos selected.

There is no fixed formula for the quantum agreed between photographer and the one photographed in such instances . It’s something worked out based on the specifics of the particular use. And of course with experience over time you develop standard formulas that apply to different kinds of situations.

The key point to note here is that at the beginning of Carnival in 2011 when I took the photograph of Steffano that ended up on the cover, I could never have foreseen I would take that particular photo and that two years later it would of interest to the editors of Caribbean Beat.

There is no fixed formula for the quantum agreed between photographer and the one photographed in such instances . It’s something worked out based on the specifics of the particular use.

This brings me sharply to the questions currently on the front burner this Carnival regarding photography, accreditation, intellectual property rights and “works of mas” which have been the subject of a guest column by the Trinidad and Tobago Photographic society in Thursday’s Newsday, as well as by Mark Lyndersay in his Bit Depth column here on TechNewsTT.

Mark Lyndersay succinctly got to the heart of the current accreditation matter when he wrote in his most recent BitDepth column “Paying for undetermined, unsupportable rights in advance of actual use is a peculiarly Carnivalesque abomination that continues because we allow it to.”

The Trinidad and Tobago Copyright Collection Agency (TTCO), which is acting as the licensing agency for the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival Band Leaders Association (TTCBA) which has replaced the NCBA on the National Carnival Commission (NCC), has decided, with the sanction of the NCC, that they will protect the rights of “works of mas” by allowing the TTCO to assume wide powers to assess and collect what it is deeming “blanket licenses” issued to photographers. (I hope you are sufficiently confused by all those acronyms because it’s all a mouthful and a lot to keep track of.)

Simply put, there’s a new system in place in which, depending on the answers given to a data collection questionnaire, photographers are being required to pay a blanket license upfront for the right to capture imagery of Carnival to cover the possibility that they might use an undeterminable number of photographs at an unknown time in the future.

The injustice of that speaks for itself. How the amount assessed for that license is being calculated, what rights are actually being conferred, and what basis any of this has in relation to our copyright laws, is not at all clear.

Photographers like myself who freelance simply cannot know beforehand what photographs we are going to take over Carnival, and therefore we cannot know…

  • if any use will be made

  • the nature of the use

  • when they will be used

…until a request is made either for editorial content, or for some commercial application.

Only when we receive the request can we determine the terms and conditions of the license agreement into which we will enter. It’s always a specific request for a specific photograph(s) to be licensed for a specified amount of time under specific terms and conditions.

An upfront blanket license fee system is therefore inherently flawed and also simply doesn’t make any sense because it’s completely contrary to how use of photography actually works in the real world. 

The new accreditation procedures caused me enough concern that I devoted considerable time and energy to the official statement published by the Trinidad and Tobago Photographic Society in two parts in the Newsday because I felt I needed to stand up to an arbitrary process.

I see myself as an active participant in Carnival. My photography is driven by a desire to tell the stories of the people who make their mas in their bedroom, or under their house, by their neighbour, or under mango tree, and then delight in performing what they have created out on the street.

I’ve been increasingly sharing those stories on Facebook and I sincerely think that these posts, along with similar posts by other photographers, have had a positive effect for many of the people captured in the photographs by increasing their visibility to a wider audience. Importantly also, these posts have informational and educational value for the public.

It’s seldom possible to directly quantify the benefits of the mutually supportive relationship in dollars and cents, both for myself and for the mas creators.

It’s very troubling that the TTCO and TTCBA think that people like myself are taking advantage of creators of “works of mas” by making off with huge profits from commercializing our photographs without any just benefits being derived by the creators. This is untrue of any photographer I interact with.  Indeed, I often act as some sort of informal agent seeking the interests of creators of “work of mas”.

The TTCO and TTCBA are also not taking any cognisance of the fact that the exposure received via photographer’s social media posts and their contribution to articles in magazines like Caribbean Beat have significantly built the profile and visibility of many Carnival artists and played a significant part in boosting the kind of performance jobs some of them get locally, and even internationally.

To give just one example, only a few months ago Steffano Marcano and Tracey Sankar-Charleau were contracted by Etienne Charles to perform at his concert at the Toronto Center for the Arts in Canada. That opportunity did not come their way by accident.

They worked hard for it and deserve every bit of their success. But that success is not in isolation, the contribution of photographers in building their fame and reputation is significant, and they are the first to acknowledge this. The art of the “work of mas” and the art of the photographer come together. The image created is the unique perspective of the photographer’s eye.

I have committed to not letting this copyright ball drop after Carnival. I strongly believe that photographers can’t let this be another storm in a teacup. We must keep up the pressure after Carnival to bring about meaningful change so that 2020 doesn’t find us arguing these same points all over again.

It’s time to organize ourselves into one strong collective voice so that we can go beyond hot and bothered armchair discussions to actively being part of the change we know is so desperately needed in the management of intellectual property.

Carnival is the current focal point, but in a much wider sense there is need for considerable public education and clarification regarding some thorny intellectual property issues as they relate to photography, the rights of photographers and the rights of those we photograph. Uninformed opinion in the public space needs to be countered by careful study of both the extent and limits of the protection of our laws with respect to the rights of photographers.

Sadly, the current contentions over copyright are nothing new. By now they are familiar recurring decimals, it’s just the acronyms that change sometimes.

Somehow, bizarrely, the one constant, Carnival, seems instead to be our big annual surprise in which storms brew at the very last minute and die in the dust of Ash Wednesday only to re-emerge the following year, as if for the very first time.  I can’t be silent on these issues. Enough. Enough. The opportunity for change must not be allowed to pass us by, again.

Maria Nunes is a photographer and producer with special interest in the documentation of cultural heritage and performing artists through both still images and film making.  A significant part of her work is photography of the work of carnival artists. Her first book “In a World of Their Own: Carnival Dreamers and Makers”, was published by Robert and Christopher Publishers in 2018.