“I’m going to finish setting up here. Go ahead! You are free to talk to people and collect the information you need. You are very safe here [he smiled in reassurance]. Just let me know if you need anything, OK?” Anthony probably read my reluctance to leave his side that Saturday afternoon at the launch of the Sports Festival (a sports event organized by Anthony’s team at the East Port-of-Spain Development Company to bring together community members of various areas cut off from each other by gang conflict) as the anxiety that is typical of strangers to Laventille entering the area notorious as a crime hotspot. Anthony was right that I was anxious, but likely wrong about why.
This summer was my second official field stay in Laventille, Trinidad, working to collect narratives that trouble its representation as a violent space. Also, the satellite army post behind the football field on which we were standing, and the strong police presence, made this one of the most secure spaces I had ever been in so I never felt any danger. No, I was not anxious about security. Mine was the anxiety of an introverted ethnographer. One of the most nerve wracking tasks for an ethnographer like me can be starting conversations with people, especially in a group setting. I scanned the area. Leaving Anthony’s side would mean talking to people. It would mean disrupting residents’ leisure time. Would I want to be bothered by a researcher when I just came out to have some fun and watch some football (soccer)? No. When I finally gathered the courage to leave Anthony’s side, I climbed to the spot at the top of the bleachers with the fewest people and pulled out my safety blanket—my camera.
As I leaned against the railings fiddling with the settings of my Nikon D3300 DSLR camera settings, a fellow spectator approached me.
“Excuse me miss, what newspaper are you from?” I looked down at my DSLR camera.
“None…unfortunately [chuckle]. I’m actually a researcher, an anthropologist.”
“Oh like the people that dig up stuff!”
“No, I’m not that type of anthropologist, those are archaeologists. And yeah they are the most popularly known branch of anthropologists. [Pause] I’m what they call a cultural anthropologist and I guess you could say I study social issues as they are happening in communities. I work here in East-Port-of-Spain and really try to hear from residents their stories.” As I took in a breath I wished I could have been less awkward in my introduction of my research.
“Oh well you need to talk to Drink, he coaches the official football team here and he could tell you what you need to know. Let me introduce you…”
I spent most of that afternoon with Drink learning about his work with the Laventille football team; the opportunities and relationships the team has afforded players; the institutional support a special branch of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service has provided for the team; and his own personal history including the fascinating story of how he got the name Drink (hint: it has nothing to do with alcohol). This was the first of a number of conversations in my six weeks in the field this summer that began with my mistaken identity as a reporter due to my safety blanket-turned research assistant camera.
Working in Laventille, a site within Trinidad which is heavily reported on negatively in the media and frequently researched, I am very conscious of the ways my presence in this place could be interpolated by residents, particularly the possibility of making them feel further surveilled, caricatured, or othered. This often makes meeting new interlocutors a nerve-racking task as I worry about how to make people feel more comfortable around me. However, since carrying my camera around more consistently at public events I have stumbled into using it as an engagement tool. With social media making hypervisibility the norm, people generally seem to be interested in having their pictures taken to be featured on public forums—strangely enough in many situations it seems as though my camera puts people at ease. Within my field site people are also drawn to my camera by their desire for an alternative to the sensationalized representation of them by the media (it is noteworthy that no official media outlets covered the peaceful event that day despite formal invitation).
In more ways than one, photography has become an essential part of my research process. I am thankful to the Penn Museum for funding my travel to Trinidad and Tobago and enabling my engagement with people through the presence and technology of the camera. I am also happy to honor my promise here to some of the people I met that day—the promise that their pictures would not be in a newspaper but it would however make it on a website.
Leniqueca Welcome is a graduate student in the Anthropology Program.