Reviewed by Leanne Haynes for ARC Magazine; 23rd April 2013
This superb visual treat, with exceptional design was published by Robert and Christopher Publishers of Trinidad and Tobago in 2012, under the editorial guidance of Melanie Archer and Mariel Brown. Pictures from Paradise is the first edition in a planned series of works by the publishers and focuses specifically on the evolution of contemporary photography in the Anglophone Caribbean.
The collection contains an eclectic array of images, featuring names such as Marvin Bartley and O’Neil Lawrence of Jamaica, Rodell Warner and Abigail Hadeed of Trinidad and Tobago, and ARC Magazine’s very own Creative Director Nadia Huggins and Editor-in-Chief Holly Bynoe of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, to name but a few of the outstanding entries that make up Pictures from Paradise. The collection then consists of images from eighteen different artists, from seven different Caribbean countries. As such, the volume gives the viewer a range of perspectives on the region that go beyond the idyllic (and somewhat tired) representations of the Caribbean i.e. those that solely focus on that of the tourist view: the sea, the sand, and the palm trees. What Pictures from Paradise does so successfully is shatter that longstanding image of the region and present an alternative, one of real lives, real people, and real situations, in an ever changing landscape so fascinatingly complex, embellished with issues of race, history, and politics. As Editors Archer and Brown state in the foreword to the collection, ‘In recognising that the region is not the picture-perfect paradise of traditional depictions, these artists focus instead on what is not easily seen or that which is often ignored’ (4). Pictures from Paradise is therefore a platform, a visual staging of the alternative, an alternative seen by the photographer and in turn, us, the viewer.
Given all this, we might then question the title of the collection; in fact it was one of the first things that struck me about Pictures from Paradise. Indeed, in the introductory essay provided by Assistant Curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica, O’Neil Lawrence, and contributor to the volume, highlights the irony of the name, offering an explanation:
[…] the images reproduced in this book are not the constructed realities that have been perpetuated and exported with the goal of enticing the tourists to the shores of one of the countries that make up the Caribbean. Rather, they are images produced by the inhabitants of this constructed Paradise – not as invitations to indulge in the unreal but as statements about Caribbean life from within the experience (5).
Lawrence’s essay, ‘Beyond Constructed Realities’, is placed at the beginning of Pictures from Paradise and effectively provides the theoretical grounding for the format of the collection: offering the most amateur of photographers (or even non-photographers) the necessary knowledge to trace the development in the region’s photographic history and also recognise the main categories of images taken by Caribbean photographers, which are then consequently represented in the volume. These four sections are as follows: The Tableau Viviant, Portraiture, The Documentary Image and finally, Transformed Media and Lawrence’s text gives a detailed overview of each of these, mapping their origins and evolution. ‘Beyond Constructed Realities’ is a vital part of Pictures from Paradise, providing a necessary theoretical springboard to a predominantly visual collection. As such, it adds a narrative to the volume, allowing the reader to relate to the visual iconography of the proceeding images.
A particular strength of Pictures from Paradise is the amount of images by each photographer. The editors have resisted the urge to include as many photographers as possible and because of this the viewer is given a sense of each of the photographers’ own stories. Rather than presenting single images, the collection presents at least six images for most of the contributors. For example, the collection contains a series of underwater images by Bermuda-born James Cooper, in fact, it is his image Fishing Line #2 (2010) that provides the intriguing and equally inviting front cover. By including eight of Cooper’s underwater series, we can explore his varying use of colour and composition and as Lawrence states in the opening essay, the ‘enhanced and surreal nature’ of the images (8). This series, is precisely that, a series, and although each of Cooper’s images are singly embellished with meaning, they function as a whole, with interwoven narratives. Pictures from Paradise allows one to trace the experimentation of the each of the photographers’ work, which in turn adds to the panoramic depiction(s) of the Caribbean.
The photographs in Pictures from Paradise address a range of subjects including Renee Cox’s Redcoat (2004) and her contemporary representation of Nanny of the Maroons; Marvin Bartley’s photographic depictions of colonial exploitation in the Caribbean in Master and Slave (2011); Alex Smailes’ Haitian series, which documents what he refers to as ‘modern-day slave domestic labour’ and additionally, his Trinidadian shots, which place an emphasis on gang culture. Other forms include the Transformed Media work of Holly Bynoe, whose time-staking collecting of images results in a creative manipulation, which specifically interrogate themes of time and memory and Nadia Huggins’ use of iPhoneography (to use O’Neil Lawrence’s term), i.e. using iPhone applications to take images, conjure up narratives relevant to use all. This brief overview is illustrative of the sheer range in Pictures from Paradise, allowing one to map the varying landscape of photography in the region, woven together by a common thread: life in the Caribbean.