Noel and Mary Norton on Trinidad's Carnival

An exclusive interview with Noel & Mary Norton
Originally published in the book Noel Norton’s 20 Years of Trinidad Carnival (1990), published by Trinidad and Tobago Insurance Limited (TATIL) and produced by Paria Publishing Limited. The identity of the questioner is not revealed in the book.

Q: What year did you start photography?

N: As far back as I can remember I loved to play with the box camera that my mother had, not thinking for one moment that I would take it up as a career it grew on me rather gradually. I always admired cameras that I couldn't afford; would look in showcases in England for instance and see a Nikon and feel that one day maybe I will own that and be able to take great photographs but it didn't work exactly like that.
It grew naturally without any special attempt on my part to become a photographer. Then when I got married it became a habit and then a serious hobby. After a while I realised that I could make some money on the side because I couldn't afford it without letting it pay for itself. I started taking photographs of children. Then people requested me to take photographs of them and then of their wedding, their family gatherings, christenings and this sort of thing and it snowballed and I suddenly found myself being pulled into advertising.
I got very involved in the advertising world and working for several agencies. Perhaps I was one of the first people to get involved in Carib beer, Esso, Shell, BP. I did advertising work for all sorts of people. I did lots of work for Nestle in the early years when there were few people in advertising in Trinidad, at least on the photographic end of it. I had another career that I was involved in as factory superintendent with a manufacturing company in Trinidad Myerson Tooth Company, and photography remained my hobby until eventually I realised that I was making more money from photography than from manu- acturing, but that didn't give me the push.
The incentive to get into photography was the fact that I loved it and I found that I started to love it a little more than my career, so reluctantly I gave up my other job.

Q: Is this when you started your studio on Marli Street?

N: No. I started my studio at home then eventually I moved to Fitt Street, Pembroke Street and Marli Street and then West Mall. It just grew, one step after the other. I didn't realise when I took up photography full-time that I would be working seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day never getting a vacation and never making the kind of profit that I would have anticipated, in fact none at all. I stuck to it because I had made the plunge and I'm not the sort of person that turns back.
I think I eventually realised that I would have made much more money at whatever job I was doing before, but I gave it up nevertheless and I'm stuck with photography. I love photography despite the fact that it doesn't pay.

With regards to Carnival, Carnival was also just one of those things I photographed. Not commercially. I did it for fun. I found out quite early in life that the one thing I should never do in life is play mas', I just am not that kind of person but I love seeing other people play mas' and when I love seeing people do things I want to photograph them, so I did it for fun, for a hobby, but of course everybody knows how expensive photography is. I just couldn't keep that up and then people started to ask me to sell them a print and I eventually started to do it and sell prints or whatever. But there's no other incentive there.

I don't do photography of Carnival because I want to photograph our cultural heritage or any sophisticated, grandiose reason except that I love photographing people playing mas' and having fun. This is how I had my kicks, I got my fun from watching others do it and trying to record how they behave. They liked it and they look forward to me doing it, year after year. They still do, they look Out for me and so I keep photographing.

Q: Going through the pictures I noticed that on the Monday and Tuesday you mainly photograph the big bands like Wayne Berkeley, Edmond Hart, Minshall, Stephen Lee Heung Why is this?

N: tell you. Carnival is far too big in Trinidad. Let's face it, I am only one person and I can only be in one place at a time. I'd love to be able to photograph San Fernando and Arima and various places but I shall have to give up Port of Spain in order to do that. I would love to be down in Marine Square or at the Savannah at the same time but I eventually have to settle at one place where most of the bands pass.

Unfortunately, we are treated like sheep in the Savannah. We are penned up, and are limited to photographing Carnival at the stage. You either do that or walk all over the city for miles and keep missing all the big bands because you don't know where they're going to be: We do know that they are ending up in the Savannah. Eventually, most photographers end up waiting in the Savannah, [waiting for the bands to go through].

You are just photographing one scene and this is the disappointing part of Carnival, there's no question about it. I don't know what can be done to resolve this problem but most photographers want to get different angles, use different focal lenses and backgrounds too. You’d like a change, off and on, not only seeing a stage all the time with electric wires hanging over it. You have to have a team to photograph Carnival, you must have five, six, seven helpers. I just don't have that, there are two of us and invariably we are stuck with the Savannah, But I think in future years, if I have future years, I'm going to try to force myself out of it.

Q: And do some more street scenes?

N: Well, have to do it slowly. I can't walk as fast as I used to and carry as much load as I did, but I think I would like to try something different. Especially since the Savannah costs us one thousand dollars. When we go we have to pay one thousand dollars for a ticket…criminal!

For Trinis who are photographing for fun or even for profit to advertise our Carnival it's an awful lot of money to pay. They've never given me anything for free, ever. They often want to borrow my photographs, and I'm talking about official people. They think nothing of asking you for a few photographs, for free. But they never think of the amount its costing you. I often ask myself after each Carnival: "Why am I doing this, why am I using up all my energy in photographing Carnival?
I love doing it, but why am I doing it at such great expense?"

Q: You have been photographing Carnival for thirty years or more and the whole concept of this book is Carnival through your eyes - what significant changes have you noticed?

N: There have been changes in costumes but don't forget I am only showing you what I am able to show you. As I said I cannot he everywhere at Carnival time and there's so much more that I am unable to record but I have seen changes yes - gradual changes. I've seen our ups and downs. We've improved tremendously and we got to a peak, as it were, in the eighties and we've had a couple little dips here and there depending on the financial constraints and what's happening in the country at the time and I think it's moving in the right direction, however, it's getting a little vulgar.

Q: That's something I noticed about your pictures. You don't photograph that side of Carnival?

N: No, I don't photograph the vulgar, seedy side of Carnival at all. I think those people that behave like that are just out and out vulgar, totally immoral and I don't see why I should record that. I have found that most worthwhile photographers turn away from them.
I agree that one or two do photograph them but the vast majority turn away because nobody wants to broadcast or show the world how low we can go.

Q: When I was going through the pictures I came across one called "Beauty in Perpetuity," a clown with shaved head How do you feel when someone goes all out like this?

N: Marvellous, it really shows creativity. I know the man who played him.

M: "Beauty in Perpetuity" was Terry Evelyn.

N: Yes Evelyn. And what band was he involved in?

M: Bailey.

N: Yes, one of Bailey's costumes. That was one of the first 'big mas' that I have ever photographed and for the rest of my life I will always remember that particular photograph. He was a most co-operative mas' player, really fantastic. Not was, he still is a mas' player. His costume was brilliant. I believe that if I make a print of it now it would be just as brilliant as it was how many years ago - it must be about 25 years old. I can't remember the exact date.

M: 1962, almost thirty years ago.

N: Its really a beautiful costume. There have been few mas' which have surpassed it. No, we have seen the Minshall series and those are also spectacular you know, and have brought a new style into Carnival. Everyone looks forward to him, but in 1962 this was really the thing.

Q: You photgraphed that on stage? Do you like photographing at Dimanche Gras?

N: Yes, I do. Well, I photographed that one on the road - in those days I really stuck to the road. Let's face it, in 1962 I was almost thirty years younger and I walked around a lot. Actually, I was around, all over Woodbrook and downtown Port-of-Spain, the Savannah, Belmont, wherever there was mas'.

M: They hadn't started having Kings & Queens yet - Terry was individual of the year.

Q: Was Carnival different then? Was it always at the Savannah?

N: I wasn't always at the Savannah nor did we have the bleachers the way we have them now. I can't remember when that actually started but I remember Carnival on the road, all over Port of Spain. It's more concentrated now than it was in those days, we saw mas' everywhere and the bands were smaller. One of the things you didn't have very much of was J'ouvert pictures.

N: Right. One of the reasons for no J'ouvert pictures is that you have to be up very early in the morning - a very difficult thing for me to do as I usually spend the early hours of j'ouvert morning printing or processing my work from the night before. That is one reason. The other reason was you always had to use fast black and white film to photograph.

Nowadays it's not such a problem because you can get fast colour film, as fast as black and white. I suppose I should do it. It's not that I object to J'ouvert, I would like to see what I see on TV, but I'm not out there early enough.
We have the Dimanche Gras show at nighttime and most photographs of Kings and Queens at the finals are very important. People want to see them in a hurry.

Q: What is your view on four days of Carnival?

N: On Monday you have nothing - 'ole mas' - whereas if they can spread it like it's being suggested where certain bands come out on Monday and certain others come out on Tuesday. Kings and Queens on another day and children on yet another day and that type of thing it could work.

Q: I suppose the size of the bands coupled with the hours of waiting to cross the stage is getting to be too much?

N: It's frustrating for the players. They've also realised that Carnival is going to play a vital role in our tourism drive and it's the only way we seem to bring some hard currency into this country.

Q: This book spans twenty years of Carnival. Prior to this period, the Jaycees Carnival Queen show was very popular. Were you involved in this whole event?

N: Not really, other than having to take the contestants' photographs. Very often the client, their sponsor, asked me to take photographs of their queens. Eventually I became the Official Photographer for the Jaycees so I photographed their shows and I think this led to the Dimanche Gras Carnival shows of today. This also gave the designers like Wayne Berkeley a chance to really be creative.

Q: The girls had to wear costumes as well?

N: They wove costumes and evening dresses. No bathing suits.

Q: Do you enjoy photographing children's Carnival?

N: Not really. I have taken quite a bit of children's Carnival but I'm not keen about children. Nowadays, we get some great costumes so I go out and photograph them but generally I would rather not.

Q: But this gives you the scope that you were telling me restricted you in the Savannah.

N: This is true but photography is still limited. Obviously you can't disturb the people who are viewing. You can't just walk around the place, so you are still limited. When they are playing in the streets on the Saturday, that's when you're free to move around as you like, so I like doing that. Children's Carnival isn't difficult to photograph. It's smaller, you don't have the restraints as with the adult Carnival where people have to wait for hours to cross the stage.

Q: Do you enjoy photographing spectators?

N: Yes, when I see interesting faces and if I can photograph them I will, but there's no commer- cial reason. I like to see interesting faces. I like to see children eating sno-cones and enjoying Carnival.

Q: What about the beautiful women?

N: They all come out for Carnival, that's when you really see them.

M: You suddenly think, "Oh my God, we have beautiful women" because you see them all races at Carnival. Faces, mixtures at Carnival is when you really see them.

N: The friendliness of people, everybody's friendly. I like that too, it's nice just to look at the stage and see a judge or a well-known doctor walking, jumping across, having a ball, you know, I've seen that. I've seen a few government ministers, judges, I've even seen priests - yes, we have seen priests at Carnival time, jumping along, enjoying themselves.
As a matter of fact one of the most amusing things is the foreign diplomats living here joining bands. You can always pick them out.

They just don't know how to chip (jump up) like a Trini. One of the things I enjoy most of all is to see my daughter Elizabeth imitate the tourists. It is a scream because she knows exactly how they move and she shows us exactly how they do it.
It's great, the fact that they feel so at home and so at ease in Trinidad that they can go and jump and play mas' with us and be one of us. Carnival is a wonderful thing. I wish I could show all those things in my photographs. I hope I have some that can demonstrate that.

Q: Do the bands request that you photograph them during the Carnival days?

M: Exactly right. For example if any of the big bands have any special things that they want to do for instance, if there's going to be a special enactment on stage, they ring us up before and say 'watch out for so and so'.

N: For instance, I often have great fun watching them as they come on stage - I can see some faces looking across - they look for me. This happens time and time again, year after year. They look for us.

Q: So when you leave, who will they look for?

N: Somebody else.

M: As a matter of fact, there is a group referred to as 'The Merry Widows". One Merry Widow has just died and they have all for the last don't know how many years played in the same band and they are among the first ones that start - "let's see where Noel is" - from the time they hit the stage - "let's see where Noel is".

N: Then they perform for me when I'm shooting. I think the NCC are making a big mistake in not making proper arrangements for the top photographers, both foreign and local. Because, let's face it, they try to be democratic. There are hundreds of photographers, but there are usually just a handful of good photographers and they should really know them by now. They should arrange for this group to get every opportunity to take the best photographs without disturbing the crowd.

For instance, they built a tremendous monstrosity across the stage for a few video cameras, usually about two TV cameras and one other video camera - a massive thing that must have cost them half a million dollars to build. It's really good for the average photographer to take one or two shots, but you'll just be taking people from a height and it's too far off. They could have built something just above the stage.

If they built something solid like that they can get ten photographers on each side, looking down, not getting in anybody's way but right over the stage and you could get great photo- graphs that way. That may cost a bit and the photographers may still have to pay them a thousand dollars but they'll get their money's worth.

M: This is one of the things that we quarrel about every year because we pay more money than anyone else photographers pay more than anyone else: newspapers and other media and we have the worst facilities.

N: They don't even put out a seat for us.

M: Yet still they take our money because they need the money but they make absolutely no provisions for you. There are times when we say we are not going back but then one or two people ring you up, like Wayne Berkeley, and you get an inner excitement and you are compelled to go. photographs, so we are entitled to show them the best we've got and we're just not given a chance. But they could build a stand in front of the main stand where we could take photographs and still not get in the way of the patrons or the judges. There are pillars there right now supporting the roof so all they have to do now is put the pillars for the new stand in the same position, it doesn't change the outlook of the place.

M: You know what we've had to do? We've actually taken our ladder.

N: Yes, I had to take a ladder and chain it onto one of the poles, stand there on this ladder for hours on end and I didn't get into anyone's way - no one complains.

M: Then at the end of the show we have to lug this ladder around and back to the car. I'll never forget on one occasion Noel came down to get a soft drink and its a good thing that I wasn't there because two or three men went up on the ladder and they would not come down, When he (Noel) came back I had to tell them I will unchain the ladder because it happens to be mine. One fella was arguing - did you pay for it? So I said no I didn't pay for it. I brought it here with me.

N: But you have the fine photographers from Japan, France, Germany, from all over the world and they are all disappointed too with the way they are treated. We should really be doing something about making them feel comfortable. Limit the number if you like. Say all right, 40 locals and 40 foreigners or twice that number, but make proper arrangements for us. It is an unfair situation, when you pay so much.

Now I don't know whether the Press pay. The Press perhaps go for free and there are of course in Trinidad, dozens and dozens of press photographers and they haven't paid a thing. agree they do a good job - what we see in the papers is good but what about the commercial ones who are doing a job for the general public at large? The public are able to get original photographs from the commercial photographers, the Press photographs tell only a small part of the story. I mean nobody keeps Press photographs in their album, they buy original prints.

N: And after 25 years of this thing they haven't found a solution yet? And it seems to be so simple for other people.

M: When we sit down and we think and say to ourselves - look at what we put up with, why do we go back? I personally think that Nortons have become an institution at the Savannah and Carnival. For instance, last year I got sick, I had the 'flu very badly and I did not go to a number of the events and when I came back, the amount of photographers that said - "Where were you? We missed you".
It has always been known that the Nortons will be there - this is where the Nortons sit - the same spot all the time, every year. I think it will be very difficult for us to say we are not going to do Carnival for as long as we are around.
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