In the UK, the last weekend of August is a busy one. The Reading and Leeds rock festivals bring the summer’s calendars of outdoor music to a big-ticket close (Biffy Clyro, Eminem and Green Day share the headlining honours this year), the last cricket Test match of the summer is being played, and for Londoners, a weekend-long party gets into full swing down Notting Hill way.
The Notting Hill Carnival began life in 1966, after an influx of Caribbean immigrants into the west London locale. Notting Hill might now be associated with multi-million-pound houses, trust-fund bohemians and expensive restaurants, but in the first years after World War II the area was decidedly run down. Many black families moved around Notting Hill because of cheap housing, and this caused friction with white locals; the 1958 Notting Hill riots, where white gangs attacked West Indians and torched their homes was the most serious example of racial tensions. A Caribbean Carnival was held the following January, but it wasn’t until the 60s that the festival really got going. By 1976 some 150,000 people were taking part in an event officially discouraged by authorities, and by the beginning of the Millennium the crowds had swelled to more than a million.
If the carnival’s blessed by good weather – never a certainty on an August Bank Holiday in England – it’s one of the best times of the year to be a photographer in London.
I used to live very close to the carnival route in north west London. On a still, warm day, you could hear the noise of the sound systems drifting up across the city. But apart from one solitary afternoon snapping away in 2005, and I had never properly photographed it. In 2011, recently redundant and with a bunch of old film cameras waiting to be used, I spent a couple of days shooting the festival.
If you’re shooting film and you have something like this on your doorstep, it’s the perfect opportunity to use it to try out cameras or films you’ve not managed to use. I managed to fit four or five different cameras in my shoulder back each day and rattled off 10 film. A Soviet Fed 50 turned out to be a delight to use; it’s a chunky, heavy metal compact a bit like the famous Olympus Trip, and a roll of Fuji Velvia cross-processed in the quirky Lomo 135M gave an agreeably purplish tinge thanks to all that colour. Most, however, were taken on a Minolta SRT 100x or a Pentax ES II.
It’s not just the floats and dancers that make the carnival worth shooting. The crowd – dancing, eating and eating – momentarily lose the armour required to live in a crowded city of millions. No-one minds having their picture taken, and the sheer weight of the crowd means a mass of opportunities.
Some of my favourites from 20011’s carnival are below. The detritus that piles up along the route – jerk chicken debris and empty coconuts, Red Stripe cans and plastic glasses – adds its own flavour. But it’s the people – dressed in outlandish costumes or simply looking on from the sidelines – which make it what is.
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