Carnival: Photographer or reveler?
I lived the Barranquilla Carnival for the fourth time this year, and although I found it even more elaborate than in the past there was still a lot of the chaos so typical of Colombia’s Caribbean towns. I felt apprehensive and fearful after having been robbed two years earlier in the entrance reserved for photographers. My flash was gone in an instant then, whisked from my bag in seconds. This year I arrived on a sunny day, hoping to find some new Carnival characters to photograph.
Covering Carnival here is not the same as in Rio’s Sambadrome, where photogenic scenes exist everywhere you look. Rio’s is well-organized with an established time schedule, beginning at night and finishing at sunrise. Their costumes are beautifully-made, with the dancers synchronized on monumental floats amid realistic scenery. In contrast Barranquilla holds its Carnival in the streets, with electric cables, advertising billboards, garbage and the ugly metal fence that separates the public from the parade spoiling the landscape. It’s creative mayhem where the dancers drink liquor, dance however they feel, and play with the public. Their suits often show the wear of many years of use, and the engines that move the floats spew the smoke of old age.
It’s a beautiful Carnival to cover because it demands concentration and persistence. We use all of our lenses and slow speeds to capture movement, while the shadows and natural light allow more creativity. We often end up almost dancing with the revelers, inhaling the fumes of the same gasoline that the harlequins use to breathe fire. It’s easy to become hypnotized by the music and the drumbeats, and hear them echo in our dreams hours later.
It all begins with a surge of the spectators’ passion when they hear and feel the approaching first dancers leading the parade. They are the dancing characters of a Carnival with more than 120 years of history. The dancers come close; they dance almost with the public, make gestures, and laugh. This all happens in the scorching heat under a blazing Caribbean sun.
The groups of dancers dressed as Africans are among the most fun to photograph. They see us with our cameras and begin to gesture towards us with their eyes and mouths.
But it’s the “cumbiamberas” that bring the real flavor of Carnival. Hundreds of women with colorful skirts, their hair tied up and a candle in their hands, dance with their male companions dressed in white to the rhythm of the original South American cumbia. They dance by memory and feel the click of our cameras, taking great care to dance even harder for us, to the point of even tangling us up in their flowing skirts.
To cover well means walking kilometers in search of the best images, feeling the music, and laughing with the dancers. We ourselves become part of the chaotic and noisy Carnival overflowing with legends where rich and poor share the joy of the fiesta for a few scorching hours. By the end of the afternoon they return home inebriated with beer and rum, and the hangover that they will gladly repeat in a year’s time.