“Good design is design that fulfils its purpose — So it’s functional. And also, attached to function, is that it’s beautiful.”
But for the neighbour’s barking dogs, it’s a clear, peaceful Sunday on January 11th, 2015, when Arnaldo James visits Scott-Bushe Street, Port of Spain, to sit for a portrait session.
More often on the opposite end of a camera, Arnaldo has been photographing for quite some time. That said, it might not be accurate to just describe him as a ‘photographer’, because in many ways he can be considered more of a designer and artist who just happens to use a camera as a medium. In his personal projects, Arnaldo doesn’t ‘document’ Life, as much as he comments on it. He imports elements into his images that build the concepts he wishes to explain.
“Good design is design that fulfils its purpose — So it’s functional. And also, attached to function, is that it’s beautiful,” Arnaldo says, declaring his love of design, before going on to relate the key difference between design and visual art. While ‘design’ he views as more practical and purpose-driven, of ‘art’ he says, “…it doesn’t mean much, because it isn’t necessary for life, but its necessity is in that.” He explains, “…we do it because we’re passionate about it. We go look at it, we go listen to it, we go participate in it because it adds this level of ‘meaning’ that you can’t always even form a verbal language around.”
“No image is without its bias.”
“We bring to a photograph our lived experiences, and how we have interpreted the world, and what we want to communicate to the world.” Arnaldo believes that no image, even a seemingly random snapshot or selfie, is free of its creator’s inclinations — There’s a reason why it was recorded and deemed valuable enough to be kept. Attributing the phrase to Ajamu Ikwe-Tyehimba, he says, “No image is innocent,” elabourating, “No image is without its bias. Every image has a perspective and a purpose.” It is for that reason that he remains constantly vigilant about what he produces and lets viewers see, “I want when I leave this planet that no-one can say that x, y, and z about Arnaldo is false. They know what I’m about because everything I put out into the public space is all connected and speaks to my core beliefs, and politics, and ideology.
“I want my work over time, and by the end of me — because I feel like the end of my career will be when I’m no longer on Earth — to have inspired people to value black and brown bodies, and black and brown experiences, [and] to value non-hetronormativity.”
“I think all of us have experienced, ‘You know a girl does this — These are the types of jobs a proper woman acquires. A proper man acquires these. A proper man performs these duties.’ And I’m not trying to [therefore] discard those things, but I’m interested in widening the conversation.”
Those themes seem central to every aspect of Arnaldo. They shape his personality, his work, his friendships, even his own style of dress and hair — which he says he uses as a tool to distinguish persons who really care about others, from those who are prejudice. While generally projecting cheerfulness, it is clear that on those core topics Arnaldo isn’t wishy-washy, as he speaks forcefully on them while still being engaging, pleasant and understanding.
“I identify as a feminist, firstly. I identify as queer. And what that means to me is a willingness to not just arbitrarily challenge the status quo, but challenge it in ways that I believe are necessary for human development.” He continues, “I’m not trying to say that heterosexual experience and life is in a box, and a bubble, and small — That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is ideally that there are more experiences, and things more important, than getting married by a certain age to an opposite sex; than having a job that pays a salary of a certain type and fitting into a particular class in the world; and more important than even bearing children who look a [particular] way and behave in just these macro-accepted ways — just these majorly-accepted ways.
“I think all of us have experienced, ‘You know a girl does this — These are the types of jobs a proper woman acquires. A proper man acquires these. A proper man performs these duties.’ And I’m not trying to [therefore] discard those things, but I’m interested in widening the conversation.” Things like single-parent fathers, stay-at-home-dads, and even the idea of same-sex couples with children, can sometimes be outright taboo in some Caribbean circles. Arnaldo cites these as exactly the kinds of topics he wishes advance, and for that reason.
“You quite often hear, ‘But yuh nice for a darkie, eh,’ or, ‘that nice darkie’. There’s an adjective added to the adjective! For me meaning that the adjective ‘darkie’ is automatically ‘not nice’.”
Speaking on racial marginalisation of the ‘brown and black’ ethnicities on islands like Trinidad and Tobago (in which those races are majority), he says, “It functions a little differently in the Caribbean as opposed to [if] you’re familiar with a North American or European construct,” continuing, “I think there are hues that are valued in the Caribbean.” He says, “It’s in everyday conversation when people say, ‘Oh, you know that high-colour one?’ [for example]. And when somebody says ‘high-colour’, I immediately ask them, ‘What’s a low-colour?’ because you’ve already established a hierarchy as opposed to a spectrum!
“Words that hierarchise people in that way have other meanings, as we know in the Caribbean. When you say a ‘high-colour’ person, are you talking about a ‘high-colour’ person [who’s] poor?” He continues, “Do you then immediately assume that they have a higher income or a higher class-status than you?”
In Trinidad and Tobago, the word ‘darkie’ is sometimes used to refer to an attractive girl of darker complexion, “…but you quite often hear, ‘But yuh nice for a darkie, eh,’ or, ‘that nice darkie.’ There’s an adjective added to the adjective! For me meaning that the adjective ‘darkie’ is automatically ‘not nice’.” It’s in these passive ways, embedded in everyday language for instance, that Arnaldo sees that nuanced forms of racial marginalisation still exist in Trinidad, Tobago and parts of the wider Caribbean.
But that being as it may, Arnaldo still says, “I believe in realness and I believe in honesty. If you’re thinking it, fine. Because if you don’t tell me then we can’t have a conversation about it. [It would still be] something you believe at your core and you’re acting on, but I just don’t know.
“Let’s identify it — that’s the start.”
- Production music by Jason Shaw.