Carnival in St.Vincent brings music, love and dance in more ways than you can count, but this one you should surely find yourself putting on your list.
Hustling On Wheels
Van culture in St.Vincent is pretty cool to say the least.
The main focal point of this blog post is the van drivers, the passengers and the culture that surrounds their lifestyle. The more you look at how it all works is the more you can begin to find a new appreciation for what they have to offer for St.Vincent.
When I started this project I was walking around on the side of the road with no real goal in mind except to take photos of vans. I remember feeling reluctant to talk to the van drivers and conductors because I was afraid they wouldn't understand what I was trying to do. This all quickly changed on my first day taking photos, I found that most of the conductors were giving me thumbs up out of their windows and the drivers were smiling through their windscreens often beeping their horns at me as a friendly nod . I then decided from there it was best to dive right in and hope for the best instead of wade in the safety of the shoreline.
I quickly found myself as a passenger of these vans several times a day, often talking to people squished next to me along their daily route. I bombarded the passengers with questions about how they enjoy the van services and surprisingly everyone I 'interviewed' in these vans were exceptionally accommodating. Like any well defined culture, the more I spoke to people is the more I started to understand the topic. People often shared similar remarks about the vans whether I was sat in a van talking to a college student with loud Vybez Kartel lyrics in our ears, or on the side of the road with an elderly lady holding her cargo waiting for any van to relieve her from the hot sun. One fascinating thing I noted is that while everyone was talking about the vans and their behaviors, if you wanted to know if it was true you could just look up from your notepad and see them doing it. I especially noticed this one time while interviewing an older lady as a van came practically drifting around the corner, she yelled "You see dat! Dem LAWLESS" as I scribbled in my notepad. I call this phenomenon "real time research"
Graphics Well Above the Speed Limit.
Meet Galdi Neehall.
Galdi knows the van culture like no other, he has been designing vans for well over 10 years and has done hundreds of designs. Galdi was instrumental in helping me really coming to understand and truly appreciate the art that reflects the van drivers. His talent for understanding stories from the van drivers which requires literal translation both in language and in emotion is paramount to his success. He mentioned that if you don't talk like they do, walk like they do and even act like they do, then you wont be able to produce their kind of art. He had to reflect their thoughts to help them understand what they wanted, meaning he had to literally show them what they were trying to say. You could essentially tag as him as a translator, psychologist and artist all in one. I funnily imagined the van driver laying down on a couch as Galdi questioned them while stroking his beard asking them to kindly "tell me about your childhood".
I've heard many say that the best art often goes without description (I guess that sucks for my blog!) if that is true then you can certainly look at the Vans for inspiration, the art on the vans are hardly ever just what they seem, and their descriptions only come in a few splattered words on the hood. Galdi often mentioned that the van drivers will approach him with complex stories buried behind materialism (money,party,drugs) that is often overlooked, and it was his job to delve deeper into their lives and develop what it was they were trying to say. If you wanted to know what many Vincentians thought about art then you should look at vans, if you wanted more Vincentians to appreciate Picasso we should put it on a Van first. But don't be surprised if the painting has a weed leaf, Courvoisier and some $100 bills along with it.
The stories that are on the vans also represent a very core culture of St.Vincent which is kept close to the van drivers' hearts. Graphic art on vans here is a widely misunderstood form of art in St.Vincent even though anyone who visits here or lives here is exposed to it. Even though I claim this large misunderstanding of Vincy van art, it is largely expressive and hardly censored. Mickel Carr the driver of Beatz was a van that had faced some controversy on his image of Osama Bin Laden. I approached him on the matter and he was very insightful on the entire atmosphere of the van culture. His only comments related to his ' Osama Bin Laden Van Art' was "He was hard to kill", all I could say was "that's true". The Beatz van is said to be one of the most progressive Vans pushing the boundaries on creativity, at one point even having a horn that sounded like the laugh of a Jamaican dance hall artist Vybez Kartel which was immensely popular.
Other countries have started to value the van art. There have been developers in St.Kitts who contacted Galdi to start expressing his work on their own public transport. This can be seen as an export of Vincentian culture and art. Who knows who else might want to capture the essence of St.Vincent being inspired by art on Vans?
Who Dares Ride?
If you want to understand who rides in these vans then all you have to do is look around you anywhere you are, most people in St.Vincent have to rely on them at some point in their lives. There is a stigma associated with riding in van’s which may make you think that someone shouldn’t use this as a form of transportation, but that stigma is loosely based on a fear which is only present in extreme cases much like most other things. However saying these vans are like most other things is far from the truth, these vans are popularized and patronized by the same fears that generate that stigma: speed, loud music, provocative graphics and most notably risky behavior on the road. Sitting in the van for some days will surely force you to encounter some of these characteristics due to the pure volume of van drivers that go back and forth, but this experience will be one of the most well rounded as an introduction to St.Vincent.
As you jump into the van you jump into the culture of St.Vincent, where you rub shoulders with the many idiosyncrasies of this island nation.
Its easy to find a queue of individuals waiting for vans, and in these queues you find all sorts of different people often going to or from work, school, or their friends. I often noted that it was easier to figure out where people were going. Simply by looking at them you could usually tell which direction they were headed. Even more reliably you could listen to their conversations as passengers answered their phones in the vans trying to talk over the loud music, you would hear the passenger shout 'Cut Dat TUNE!' to the conductor to turn it down the music via their remotes in their hands
An Interview with a Van Driver
When I asked the van driver his name he promptly asked me "My name or the name of the van?" I responded "How do you want to be known?" He smiled and simply said "Short Boss". I primarily asked him about how he caters to his passengers needs and what do people think about vans in general. Short Boss responded that he caters to his passengers 'simply by looking in the rear view mirror' he understands that the expectations vary between person to person, especially when they may either be elderly or a young college student. When understanding what people thought of vans in general he said that he is more concerned with what they 'know' about vans not what they 'think' about them. He wanted people to understand that they are a business on wheels and if they aren't 'hustling' then they aren't making money.
I interviewed another driver who was representing American culture on his van through the flags and the use of imagery of Barack Obama. I asked him why he chose that sort of imagery and he responded that he thought that 'the beast' which is the armored Cadillac that the president of the United States rides in was 'pretty cool'. I then noticed his van had ' The Beast' marked on the front and it all kind of made sense when I realise the art was implying that his passenger's are 'VIP'. He noticed me peaking at the markings and said " See even the President could ride in his van" which confirmed my thoughts. We then started talking about the state of the van culture in St.Vincent, he mentioned to me how it changes so fluidly, and if you are a stone in the water you simply get weathered down over the years, he continued to say that you need to flow with the river. Particular comments were made about some pressures the van drivers felt of upcoming change, but he was not worried because ' Van Culture is Creative ' any efforts to change it would just breed more creativity. His tone throughout this part of the conversation about change indicated it being a forceful change rather than a voluntary one. I was taken aback by the amount of information you could get from these drivers so readily just by hanging out next to them as they sit in their van with their arm over the window. I was left with the impression that these van drivers are so diverse and they shift gears as much as they shift roles from: businessman, pioneer, DJ, speed demon, street performer, artist, public figure and most importantly a proud Vincentian
What About The Passengers - a question to a van driver?
When asking van drivers who were the most two important passengers that he had to deal with , he often commented the elderly and the students, mostly because their ideal van experience often were the furthest divided.
The younger students definitely will tell you that they enjoy the spicy journeys that the vans have to offer. You can often find students encouraging drivers in their 'rivalries' between other vans in an overtaking competition even filming them and sending them to people like vincyvanculture on Instagram to keep a track of who won or lost. I interviewed students in the vans on the way into town and they often mentioned these following criteria as the most considerable, note in terms of rank 1 being the most important and 5 being the least:
- Cleanliness (also includes: body work, rims, tints)
The students also further commented that they view vans as a form of media when it comes to music and graphics. Many of the newest songs for carnival would be first heard in these vans and they would become almost like a 'student's news outlet' for their fix of popular media. Timely Graphics quickly ends up on the hoods of these vans as art. I would make reference to the Osama Bin Laden picture above which was quickly put on after his death. I would not be surprised one day to find the latest memes printed on the vans or even St.Vincent generating culture just from putting it on the hood of their vans, becoming more represented for the youth to grab a real hold on it.
The elderly were a little more on the calm and cruising side of preference when it comes to van service.
You would quickly notice that the vans the elderly got into often did not have graphics on them, they didn't seem to concerned with them at all. In terms of service the conductors often encouraged them to take the more comfortable seats and move around the more young and nimble adversaries. I found that the older folk were well respected when the conductors interacted with them; you have to give the conductor credit for his customer service, it's not easy being polite when you are trying to hurry people into seats and squeeze them into sardine cans while. Never the less, I did end up asking some of the elderly on their preferences for a good van experience:
The shorter list provided by the older demographic consisted of (in the same scale 1 being most important)
3. Music (although this may have been either no music or more to their taste )
While here we have a shorter list it is important to note that they both do consider speed as of relatively high importance. Speed seemed to be the most attractive criteria to the broadest range of people, gotta go fast right?
Every Hour is Rush Hour.
There is almost always a rush for certain vans, the crowds who flock towards them are flooded with so many different people it's hard to tell who is going in and who is coming out. I had several chats with people about the vans waiting where our conversations abruptly ended when we heard that rhythmic thumping in the distance which prickled their ears often indicating our end of conversation and their departure.
As we mentioned before, you can hear the vans in the distance before you can see them, and somehow the people know which one is coming. You can tell the lingering crowds sense the impeding stampede, causing a rush that if you aren't ready for you are bound to be left behind. This doesn't sound like such a bad thing until you realize these people have sometimes hours to travel home and aren't willing to spend another 15-45 minutes waiting on a van that can get them as close to their home as possible where sometimes they have another 30 minute walk or more to get to their home from where their van drops them off.
I started to imagine the bus stops in St.Vincent as if they were metro terminals in the big apple . It was interesting to see so many similarities as the vans doors close with people squeezed inside, just making it , while the others were left behind with a sad face in the distance. Just play some loud Soca music in the NYC metro, and I say us Vincentians will feel right at home.
It wasn't rare for me to marvel at the vans when you could see straight into them as people jumped in and out. There was often a general sense of 'just get this over with' which is an atmosphere you can compare to the kinds of things people do as soon as they step into their homes and drop their bags and kick off their shoes. You often see people who were waiting in the sun step into the van and sigh with relief in the same manner, forgetting all the eyes are still on them. It was a dream to photograph some of these people who didn't notice you where they are truly being themselves in a setting which is oddly beautiful.
In my final words, let us not forget what these vans actually do - and who they cater for. They are some of the most effective and hardest working Vincentians we have. You will always find one of them on the road and no matter what happens to St.Vincent, you can be sure their wheels will still be turning with the same creativity pushing them forward. Can they do what they are doing better? Yes, of course, but who can't say the same thing for themselves. Be sure to take a ride on a van or at least have a nice friendly conversation with a driver.
Take care and enjoy!
'The City Takeover' With Hon. Lisa Hanna, Dr. Hon. Ralph Gonsalves and the Girl Guides, also including teasers for the upcoming blog post of the Travel Channel Shoot in the Tobago Keys , Owia and Union Island. Which I was cast in!
The Argyle International Airport located on the mainland of St.Vincent in the Caribbean is gearing up for a release in February 2017. There have been postponed release dates in the past, but this one certainly feels different. The sheer amount of attention that has been brought to it from far and wide is notable enough to help understand that things seem to be developing quickly.
Tours from several stakeholders, invited guests and also employee personel at the current regional ET.Joshua Airport are being conducted back to back showing the entire airport that the passengers will have access to. I took my tour with the contingency of the SVGHTA (St.Vincent and the Grenadines Hotel and Tourism Association).
The terminal building has an ostentatious design that allow your eyes to easily flow from one section to another with the curving wave like angles and sweeping landscape features ; much like the surrounding area of Argyle. You would imagine it was designed as an international art feature by an architecht with a passion project of capturing both the Caribbean's simple charm and Mediterranean flair.
Art and culture continues it's heavy influence within the terminal building, the departures area holds the 'Argyle Interpretation Center' which is a gallery displaying the pottery and other artifacts from the tribes who use to inhabit the land found during the excavation of the airport.
The departure lounge is contained in two floors the first for regional flights below and the second for international flights above.
This brings me to where I began to feel like a little kid going on a jet for the first time again except there was no need for the jet only the sky bridge.
I thought at this point I couldn't be impressed anymore until...
I want to congratulate the person responsible before you see these photos so you can truly appreciate it. These lounges decorated by Mrs. Eloise Gonsalves the wife of the Prime Minister who is the head of the Finishing Comittee of the AIA. She extends the design choices with emphasis on the colour of the airport into the lounges simply with grace.
I was thoroughly impressed with seeing the development and results of decisions made to truly create something that is aesthetically grand for us Vincentians to relish and enjoy with pride. And as we were exciting the terminal I found myself feeling like we had a new hope
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The beach was the last place I thought I was going to have an impromtu photo shoot with 25 people all eager for their own 'million dollar picture' but now it doesn't suprise me.
I went to the beach because someone challenged me to take some pictures of something I loved. I was looking around and spending time thinking of what I could take pictures of. My very next thought was who was yelling at me? . I looked at a group of people already posing towards me trying to understand what they were shouting as it caught me off guard. Then I came to my senses as I heard them shout "take a shot!" With their fingers colletively aimed at me. At this point I hesitated, because I wasn't sure what I should do, but then I thought am I dotish or what? Take the blasted picture!
Somehow their group picture lead into a spontaneous and collective stampede into the sea. I wondered if this had to do with my camera or is it something they all do normally. Maybe a bit of both
I felt like I had struck cultural gold. All these young gentlemen who I might have never gotten the opportunity to interact with are enjoying themselves infront of me while being very polite and respectful. I was almost shocked but I didn't know why, I feel like I was still coming to terms with my preconceptions of mischief makers yet I felt so comfortable around them.
And we were just getting started.
All while they played, they each were pointing at me and asking for their very own "million dollar picture". Trying to impress made it even more fun for them as they tried their best to out style each other
I began to follow their legs like a dancing puzzle, trying to figure out who was next to intercept the ball. All while getting so close to the action, I managed to get a little kick myself.
Soon I had all sorts of people getting interested in the photo shoot asking for their own picture. I felt like I stepped back into an age where cameras where a novelty and portraits where valuable moments to be cherished forever.
Things started getting pretty professional here. We actually began testing focus and poses before the jump, almost like I was actually becoming a real photographer, but then I missed the shot so we had to do it again. But luckily the repition inspired some others to join in aswell.
It was certainly a day to remember , and I ended up giving them my contact details so they could all see their pictures. Thank you all for helping and enjoy your 'million dollar pictures'.
Owen Ralph has been painting for many years here in St. Vincent but I've only recently stumbled into his gallery. At the time I struggled to define what it was that I felt like I discovered, was it a museum, a home, a studio, a collective piece of art? Maybe it's a little bit of everything, although one thing is for sure that it was certainly a treasure.
The gallery is found in Sion Hill , I've passed by it many times and I never knew it was there until one day passing by it again. It took just one wandering gaze to lock my sights on a sign that says ' Art Gallery, Sign painting Etc'
The layout of the gallery is like a mosaic of paintings covering the roof to the floor with illustrations ranging from the classical landscapes of the Grenadines to women in bikinis and aprons doing home cleaning. The most interesting part of this gallery is his studio in which he paints in the back. A very connected feel to his art comes from where you see its birthplace. His process is unashamedly laid out in manner that shows invention and creativity in such a unique setting.
Owen has many stories about those who has been in his studio, helping you understand this a place where many of his life impacting experiences have happened with paintings reminding him never to forget those both wonderful and sad times.
His art is even captured in ways other than paintings , he has pieces of costumes from past carnivals hung around showing his other talents all kept in one place.
A man of many hats, yet all worn in the same place. Owen finds himself a creative outlet that is overflowing with history and sentimental artifacts lay all over his gallery like a personal home museum, except Owen works in his museum.
Owen Ralph's Gallery is truly an experience I will never forget. The short time I spent with him has taught me much about art and how I now see it. The connection to the paintings and artist has never been so involved for me, and in this case it is unavoidable.
Pass by his place and give him a shout. Let him know I helped you find it and I know he will be joyful.
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Do you ever find yourself thinking that humans are the scourge of the earth and they are ripping it apart? Or maybe that if we humans weren't around nature would thrive and survive in a paradise we can only dream of? I certainly did until I met this vine outside of my house.
This vine here in particular we will call Ashley. I named it because I wish to humanize it for the sake of my argument, but more so to help you understand where I am coming from. Ashley here seems to have many personalities, and unlike people, Ashley's personalities are all kept in the same place, all at the same time. Take a look for yourself.
Here Ashley has seemed to strangled and broke its encroaching neighbor and kept it's corpse held high as a warning not to get in it's turf.People say actions speak louder than words, well Ashley sure doesn't speak and it's actions are almost frozen in time without a care for who has to see. This is the best part about Ashley, no matter who is looking, it all seems to be about blatant survival yet this doesn't make it predictable. Even if you tried to flirt with Ashley and offer it all it could ever want, it would probably still wrap its vine around your neck to find its way to glory using you as a step.
I should probably establish where Ashley lives before I continue with this so that you can understand a little better why it does these things. Its found in the middle of several other plants who are a little more humble and shy than Ashley. Firstly they don't seem to have to wrap themselves around their neighbors to survive. And secondly they also seem a little more consistent in their path, almost like if they understand they can stand on their own without anyone's help. But Ashley seems to know it needs to feed off others, it immediately springs for its friends and enemies as it pops out of the ground like an extroverted teenager looking for a ride to the city to party no matter who is driving.
Despite all that we have seen so far, Ashley can be very cunning and calculated. It spaces some of it's grips around victims with an exceptional symmetry. I couldn't determine why it had done this, but if I were to guess, Ashley just likes to let you know what it is capable of.
Unlike us, it isn't able to hide its failures. Ashley used her energy with nothing to hold onto in hopes of success but ultimately failed leaving behind a dull and brown scarred limbs. These limbs would reach back onto itself almost as if to soothe its wounds ' everything is going to be alright'. In these areas I noticed not many subsequent efforts to try again, almost as though it was afraid to try again.
In the sun the leaves shine green and bright in an attempt to cover up it's friends and rotten mistakes below alike. Relentless and cruel, this plant would suffocate its neighbors until it took over the entire city. And then from that point it would begin to take apart itself.
I hope that you can forgive Ashley, even after my portrayal of it's behavior of self harm, murder and other things. Here is an opportunity to see something so unashamed and honest, that if you can forgive this, you may be able to forgive anyone who at least speaks their mind in the same way that Ashley does. But maybe not the holding up your neighbors corpse thing though, don't try that.
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Red and White has been an annual event started over 26 years ago which you may very well know that it goes beyond the genesis of the family hotel. But this year in particular begun in the planning stage 3 months in advance inside the living room in Barbados.All the family members found space among the furniture to be a part of the crowd sprawled out among the couches and chairs or even perched upon armrests. As we were discussing the general happenings of St.Vincent we somehow came about talking about Red and White. At that time we decided we were going to actually plan a real party instead of just simply having it as was tradition. Ideas begun to fly from every corner full of colorful descriptions that made us laugh and argue, but the most important one was the date. December 17th. This date was set and nothing was going to change it. If only we would have known it was going to be completely packed with our family and friends, and friends of friends becoming new friends we would have built a bigger restaurant.
We begun the day with anxious anticipation of how the night was going to go. With so many new things put into place, we were jokingly told don't even bother to come back to work if our party was a flop. At least I think they were joking, luckily we didn't have to find out. Regardless we worked from early in the morning putting in place all the little bits and bobs we had been working on for the last 3 months, all the preparations began passing through my mind and at this point I was happy with the efforts all of us had made for our little family tradition.
The early planning wasn't the only tradition we influenced to break for this event, we also got our fellow Vincentians to come early to an event! Unfortunately we found out they were told the wrong starting time and for this I have to apologize to those dedicated and valued people who came early (I'm so sorry Aunt Esta!). The party truly kicked off at about 10:00pm , lines started forming at the entrance for their wrist bands and I was breathing a sigh of relief against my possible termination of employment through an ambiguous joke.
Relief turned into joy as I saw friends from overseas seeing each other for the first time after returning home and embracing heartfelt hugs fueled by years of friendship.
12:00am , the party was in full force. The DJ with a relentless smile at the crowd pointing to him and smiling. He found himself on stage directing the crowd like a maestro conducting a concert. I now found myself with a beer in hand and camera in the other, a good excuse to get on the dance floor and 'work'. The rest of the night went as you expect, constant dancing, people meeting people for the first time at the party despite being there for hours together due to the crowd being so dense. Drinks coming from the make shift bar we set up that morning where the old bar used to be, along with the KREW craft beer which the family sampled several times to make sure the quality was consistent all night.
Thank you all who made our night possible in planning and preparing.
And a special thanks to those who came from even before the start time all the way to the end. We hope to see you again next year and have a very merry Christmas.
I recently had the fantastic opportunity of shooting with the SVG Rugby Union who were tasked with an initiative of inspiring rugby among younger generations. They sought to achieve this by introducing primary school children from local Schools around St.Vincent to the sport of rugby at the National Stadium. As I walked out onto the bright green grass of the stadium with my camera lazily by my side I could see the large group of children in blue and yellow teams facing their coaches. It only took one of them to notice my camera and they all spun towards me ignoring their coaches important rules of the game, each with their individual and unique poses. I was immediately taken aback by their spirits and I happily reoriented myself to engage with these young children who were so eager to take photos.
The first thing I asked them was "Who likes to take photos?" Normally at this point I would find myself motivating them to put their hands in the air, but on that day I found myself judging a competition of who had their hand highest in the air.
It wasn't long before they were all playing rugby. I happily found myself following their less than predictable patterns, which some might say sounds like professional tactics but instead looked rather adorable.
Their eager attempts to play a complicated game were not met with dissatisfaction, quite the opposite actually. They were listening and abiding by the rules quite well for those new to the sport. They only got frustrated when they were told to stop running forward as they got to the try (score) line. I assume they got irritated at their instincts which are begging their souls to run as fast as they can.
As they huddled together to discuss strategy, their faces were so captivating I couldn't resist participating in their expressions and forgetting the game plan, which the coach could easily scold me for later.
Thank you to the SVG Rugby union for inviting me to experience this, and a huge thank you for the children to being truly inspiring in a seemingly effortless but almost professional manner.
It's easy to view photos forgetting what it takes to capture an image. I used too often find myself guilty of losing an awareness of how I see an image, but now I try to hold myself responsible whether it be a spontaneous selfie or a National Geographic post. With this responsibility, I aim to expose this phenomenon. Especially to others who might not know they want to be inspired until they stumble upon something that speaks the thoughts they were yet to have.
If you want to really learn how to understand a photo then you should start taking them yourself. The process of creating photos is like chasing imagery in a dream, and engaging with your subject is like trying to describe it to a friend or loved one using their bodies as puppets. As you speak to them you remember different moments figuring out what actually happened or making it up as you go along. Until finally, after you both have laughed or cried over the strange process of re-enacting your memories, you finally create new ones that are captured forever.
The expression of the photo comes with the connection between:subject,photographer, and audience. The photographer creates a space of intimacy for their subject to vulnerably express themselves with a keen sense of awareness. This intimate space produces an image that is then communicated to the world for everyone that wasn't able to be a part of it, creating a socially acceptable peeping tom gallery that expands for miles.
Featured: Aubrey, Alice and Stephan
Special thanks to Lexi.