“Turn Up the Volume” is an essay containing three digital photo collages, each paired with excerpts from interviews collected during my ethnographic fieldwork. The piece is part of a larger anthropological project that experiments with ways to enlist the visual to unsettle our complacency with spectacular and everyday forms of oppression and violence waged against populations racialized, classed, gendered and sexed as “other”. However, this work does not merely attend to technologies of dominance and their effects, but also to the quotidian ways people refuse conscription and exceed limits.
The digital photographs I manipulate in these collages were all taken in the Morvant/Laventille area of East Port of Spain, Trinidad (popularly referred to as “Laventille”) in 2106 and 2017. Laventille is a dynamic geographical region within Trinidad and Tobago. It comprises several intra-related mixed-income communities on the eastern periphery of the capital city Port of Spain. Laventille has had a longstanding history of marginalization. From its inception in the nineteenth century as a refuge for the formerly enslaved and landless, it was racialized as black and marked as a depressed and potentially threatening space.
Despite the rich cultural production, liberation movements, and prominent national figures that have emerged from the region, the area has been heavily criminalized in the media and its residents are now generally ostracized in the national community. Its notorious reputation has been entrenched by an exponential increase in rates of gang violence since 2000, fueled by the rise of the informal drug economy in the 1980s, the economic constriction of the post-Independence welfare state, and the re-routing of narco-trafficking through the Caribbean corridor as a result of War on Drugs pressure in Central America. With the proliferation of negative feelings directed towards Laventille, it is difficult for any image produced of the area to be read beyond the language of deviance and criminality. It is difficult for viewers to engage with the actual content of images to hear the stories of residents, and to locate these stories in broader past and ongoing socio-political relations.
Playing with excess in the single image, it is my hope that these photo collages will inspire the viewer to pause and read beyond the surface. And I hope this will allow for the potential development of what Ariella Azoulay calls a “civil contract of photography”: an acknowledgement of all of our complicity in the structural and intersubjective violence operating within Laventille, and the forging of a relationship between the viewer and those captured, opening up possibility for political action.[i]
I Was Here is a play on the souvenir postcard motif. It combines photos collected during field research in Laventille between June and August of 2016 to visually discuss the physical positioning of Laventille in the prime hilly terrain of the Northern Range overlooking the central business district of the capital city, contrasting with its social positioning within the nation as a dangerous warzone that should not be traversed. At the same time I Was Here is meant to capture the ways the community politically, economically and culturally fuels the nation. The collage is paired with the words of Reginald, a man in his 70s who decided to move from his home in West Moorings (one of the wealthiest suburban areas in Trinidad) to rent a house in Morvant/Laventille for a few months.
Fire Bun! But Bring Water. is a discussion of policing within the area of Laventille. It is meant to capture the simultaneity of police neglect, hyper-securitization, and robust community policing efforts existing in the region. It is paired with the words of Mr. Johnson, a resident of Morvant/Laventille for over 50 years.
Today, Yes Today, We Will Fly draws on the iconic signage style of advertisements for dancehall parties and fêtes to engage in a discussion of “freedom”. The collage features photographs collected at St. Barb’s Basketball court and at a sports festival aimed at combatting gang warfare that was held in Laventille during July 2016. It is paired with the words of Vincent who was born and raised in Laventille (however he later moved away), as he gives me a walking tour of part of the area and introduces me to the statue of Adende. Today, Yes Today, We Will Fly references multiple historical revolutionary attempts at liberation (defined differently at different moments) from slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and racial capitalism. But it puts these various large-scale political movements in conversation with the quotidian ways people free up and make joy—make sound—make life—even amongst silencing.
[i] Azoulay, Ariella. 2008. The Civil Contract of Photography. New York, NY: Zone Books.
Leniqueca Welcome is a Trinbagonian Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). She is a member of the Collective for Advancing Multimodal Research Arts (CAMRA) at UPenn—an interdisciplinary collective committed to participatory, experimental media-making. She is also a student affiliate of the Center for Experimental Ethnography at UPenn. Prior to starting her Ph.D. program, she was trained as an architect at the Fay Jones School of Architecture and worked at ACLA: Works Architecture and Interiors in Trinidad. As a designer and researcher, she is most broadly interested in issues related to securitization, racialization, space, visuality, and sovereignty in the Caribbean. Her fieldwork is conducted in Trinidad in the areas of East Port of Spain, and Enterprise, Chaguanas. Her research methods combine participant-observation, spatial analysis, mapping, archival research, and collaborative photography.