May 14, 2015

Photos by James Gaillard

Short Folio is a recurring column promoting positive cultural exchange by engaging great photographers to share their visions of the Caribbean Diaspora. For the latest edition, we return to the U.S. Virgin Islands for St. Thomas Carnival, as seen through the lens of James “Lakay” Gaillard.

The U.S. Virgin Islands, and especially St. Thomas, is one of the melting pots of the Caribbean. Large numbers of transplants from Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, Puerto Rico and, increasingly, the Dominican Republic call Rock City home, joining rooted Virgin Islanders, Americans and others in one of the Caribbean’s major hubs for commerce.

As a result, St. Thomas Carnival, also known as VI Carnival (though St. Croix and St. John host their own celebrations in December and June, respectively, as well), takes on a more international character than some other celebrations in the region. You could say it is the Caribbean’s own answer to Toronto’s Caribana, Notting Hill Carnival in London and the Brooklyn West Indian Day Parade, celebrations which reflect the full spectrum of Caribbean culture more than one particular one.

Born in Haiti and raised in Brooklyn, James Gaillard currently lives in St. Thomas, where he has documented VI Carnival since relocating. His own multifaceted Caribbean background gives him a particular insight into the bacchanal, as seen here in his photo series from this year’s just-concluded Carnival.

How did you end up in St. Thomas?

My company asked me to come down here. I am a manager with Coca Cola, and I was working for them in the Bronx. Being from the Caribbean, it is almost like going back home. The weather [and] the culture is similar to what I’ve known and grew up with.

How many years have you been shooting VI Carnival, and how does it compare to other carnivals that you’ve been to?

I’ve been here for four years, and I’ve been every year, except the first, because I was moving here at that time. I’ve been to Haiti Carnival, Jamaica Carnival and a couple in the States, like Miami and the Labor Day Parade in Brooklyn, and the difference here I would say is the mixture. St Thomas is the mecca of this little area, and you get all different Caribbean cultures mixed in. In the bands and troupes themselves, sometimes you have someone from Dominica, someone from St Lucia, someone from Jamaica. It’s a little different from other [Caribbean carnivals], but similar because you get all of those cultures mixed into one, along with the Virgin Islands culture.

Is that coming from people from other islands who visit for Carnival, or mainly people from other islands who’ve settled in the VI?

It’s people from these islands who are now living in the VI. It’s just like in New York, with the Labor Day Parade in Brooklyn. You are not home but whenever you get the chance, you want do stuff just like home. That is how culture is transferred to another place. You get the influence of the cultures that are now living here. At Carnival, they incorporate some things from their home, and you get all of the cultures in one wave. There is this thing that we also have in Haiti, where people will dress as if they were cows. Some of them are working around with this whip, and when they whip the ground it makes this sound that’s almost like a gunshot. And then you have the throwing of the paints and powder on J’ouvert. They got that from Trinidad.

Which is your favorite part of VI Carnival to document?

Those kids out there for the Children’s Parade, they put out good performances. They range from three to about 18, and they run almost the same length as the adult parade, under the sun. You can tell it is something that they enjoy doing. Some of the troupes come back the next day to be part of the adult parade.

What was the most memorable thing about this year’s Carnival?

This one went from day one to the last day without any violence. Also, we have the Carnival Village where there are performances every night by different bands. Thursday was konpa and Spanish night, and Pressure performed on Friday. Triple K from Dominica performed both nights, and they were unlike anything I’ve seen before. On Sunday after Carnival, everybody heads to Magens Bay, for what they call tramping. It’s sort of like what Haitians do– get a band together and people play drums and grab metal. Everybody goes up and down Magens, on the walkway. It’s a lot like rara. Rice and beans are cooked different ways, but it’s still rice and beans.

Follow James Gaillard at @LakayPhotography.