Five years back, Peter was invited to this same venue (Studio Film Club, Port of Spain) and to be honest, he was a little apprehensive about visiting Trinidad. You see like any good red-blooded Jamaican man, he couldn’t stand soca.
“MAN IN GLITTER BRIEF AGO TRY WHINE PAN MI.”
Yet just hours after touching down he sends this message: “Yow! The dancehall! All they play is dancehall…but way, way better selection than in Kingston!”
So when the Jamaica Film Festival doesn’t invite you; yet the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival does – maybe there’s a pattern…that perhaps you value our island’s creativity more than we do.
So thank you for this opportunity to be here to show and give a brief talk about Peter’s work, which has influenced the work of others throughout the Caribbean and inspired those from outside to visit our island.
It’s been strange having him as a friend: this person whom others venerate as an artist, having to answer about his ‘art’. Because for him his work was more a compulsion that later led him into ‘artistry’ and for us – you tend to take it for granted. He was your friend, your talented friend, but your friend.
On December 31, 2014, his two-year fight against cancer ended, and we? We had a lot to think about.
“MI DEAD!” was the message greeting visitors to AfflictedYard.com that he had instructed us to upload.
You see he was just a little bit fatalistic in life, often complaining about ‘living on fumes’ and as many of you, his fellow artists do, that “I’ll only be appreciated after I’m dead”.
And when the Smithsonian Museum emailed a few weeks back we could hear that reaction: “FUUUKKKKKK!!! SERIOUSLY???”
His work was a rare, sharply focused eye-view into Jamaica’s culture and and daily life. He could be dark or he could find optimism in the gloom – could make you laugh or could make you cry…or all at the same time.
We think a lot of it came from being born in Jamaica but raised since his teens as an immigrant in Canada. It gave him a different perspective on the nuances, the weirdnesses of different cultures, especially his own; and together with his innate fascination perhaps made it so much easier for him to see what the rest of us wouldn’t or maybe, couldn’t.
In effect he was kind of an outsider-insider in a uniquely Caribbean way – you’re from an island but yet you can also call ‘big foreign’ home. And that could often cause him to clash with consensus; which was, well, all the time.
The very last thing Peter would seek to do is to adhere to what everyone else in Jamaica was following; yet he could also be fiercely protective against foreign stereotypes on the culture – and would challenge this online when it pissed him off enough.
When his own work was done it had to be shown his way, there was never an interest in fitting in or watering it down.
He was also ahead of his time. Peter’s writing, stirring things up on message boards and his blogging on AfflictedYard.com, which started in 1999; later his role as creative director/co-founder of FIRST Magazine – that 10 years ago set an international standard for Jamaican print publications which is yet to be troubled. He quit postgraduate studies at the University of the West Indies to teach himself broadcasting and founded Kingston Signals Internet radio using crappy dial-up internet; showcasing sound systems playing live from a Kingston basement; and of course his accidental artist’s move into photography and then later videography.
At the time working for Downsound Records where he did Kingston Signals, he had picked up a camera just because he figured, ‘hey, why not make a little extra money’. It was also fun. Not art, but fun; and his work started to take on this development curve and subject variety. In dancehall his shots could be aggressive; on fashion shoots they could be whimsical; or landscapes like something he plucked from a dream or nightmare.
From one day to the next, life was totally unpredictable in what he set out to do or accomplished. He was obsessed with all parts and places of society, like when we did FIRST Magazine it was really this journey throughout Jamaica’s socio-economic climate and it didn’t matter so much where the story came from. A culture snob for sure yet he never subscribed to the downtown-uptown segregation practiced in Jamaica.
His philosophy was basically ‘Is this good shit?’ Always, whatever it was. And everything he did was storytelling. When he touched video later on it was always in reverse- For his photo spreads, they always had this unfolding story: especially as you’d watched him lay them out on his computer. Then he would record just background noise at the shoot, in the street; and that could become the audio that underlaid a slideshow.
So he was really a filmmaker before he was a filmmaker. A very conscious and sensitive narrator of his subjects.
His work wasn’t intentionally stylised or pre-planned. It was his eye, his mind, fixating on a subject – which would pass as ordinary to the rest of us; like the beautiful mud-lake created from bauxite waste, where he shot some of his most iconic photography.
He always added something to his subject – maybe a small part of him; like in the video Proverbs 24:10, the dignity of the shot and its editing has given the street dancer more than just movement.
We still question just how much he already had the vision in his head before. And partly because his influencers weren’t always clear and they were often random: anything from Stanley Kubrick to Ricky Gervais’ The Office to…uhm…Boney M music videos.
In his work you often found humour but also a sadness – he would always want those to play together. He was a nutball who enjoyed beautiful things, or things that looked bad for that matter.
There wasn’t pretence. We’d often be looking for something to find a spot to shoot and then they’d always be this, “I KNOW WHAT I’M GONNA DO. I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT I’M GONNA DO.”
The rest of us, we’d just shrug.
That was done. He shows us the frame on the camera. Us: “Ah.”
And he goes and he does it again and again. Like when Ninjaman was on the run from police (“BADMAN NUH GO JAIL PAN DI WEEKEND”) and Peter photographed him with that Monopoly Get Out Of Jail Free card – who else walks around with stuff like that in their wallet…purely for a chance to antagonise the police?
When he was growing up in Canada one time, police stopped him and this officer shone a light into the car. His response? He takes out this pocket flashlight and shone it back in the cop’s eyes.
He never grew out of it. He’d always wanted to take something, to hold it and to look underneath to see what he could find, or take apart.
There was this one popular deejay, who maybe also a gang leader, and he was in a little war when one of his soldiers was kidnapped. Why, we can’t really fathom – but Peter decides to go down to his yard the next day when the man was released, and when they get down there it’s heavy: a lot of guns, a lot of tension and this same gunman who wants to get back his ratings tries extorting the pikcha man.
So it goes on…and it’s getting more tense. So Peter turns to him…
“WHATCHA GONNA DO, KIDNAP ME?”
The entire yard was done right then.
With the music, and more what was behind it, be could be quite fascinated – the musicianship, but being honest it was oftentimes just the fuckery.
He was fascinated by the dancehall scene, but often he would have to pretend not to, probably just so that he could let himself do it. And then sometimes he would have to turn down paying work to shoot an artist he couldn’t rate. If he liked the music then good, but then that interest had its limit. Often a total 180-degrees to where “I CYAN STAN’ HIM NO MORE. BAWRIN!”
That was him. Always restless. The smartass kid throwing things from the back of the class, like the manifesto he wrote on AfflictedYard.com, The Afflicted Purpose…
We are split along colour lines, class lines, cultural lines, and in some cases, will divide from others if they don’t keep their body odour from becoming offensive.
With the Internet, however, the media has become much more varied and consequently, much more confused. Now, instead of having to listen to news reports of the latest shootout downtown’, we can simply turn on a computer and listen to intercepted radio transmissions of taxi drivers discussing the action live.
Indeed, anyone with the basic equipment can become ‘the media.’
So what does all of that have to do with www.afflictedyard.com?
We are Jamaicans living within and without cultural control.
We are at once proud nationalists and harsh critics of our country of origin.
A country known for its extremes. A place packed with originality and creative energy that continues to flourish despite the current socio-political state that has removed the personal pride of many.
An island filled with beauty unsurpassed and ugliness that would make a rat puke. This is the Afflicted Yard. A place of extremes where you will see life as we see it.
This from 15 years ago, yet doesn’t that sound like right now? Always ahead of his time and unafraid about it.
He felt the media was self-stereotyping the culture. Then there’s this endless diet of photo coverage of rich people parties, or parties of poor people spending to be rich; and payday loans or ponzi schemes to fund all this that is held up as ‘success’…and perhaps underneath that an act of denial mixed in with a coping mechanism – whereas the International Monetary Fund classification says: HEAVILY INDEBTED COUNTRY.
“AN UNOFFICIAL MEMBER OF THE JAMAICA TOURIST BOARD,” said a banner on AfflictedYard.com. You’d have thought the JTB might have been more grateful. He did inspire a lot of people to visit the country and to seek him out – because he had showed so much more of Jamaica.
He would approach the most neglected subject with the most dignity – he’d always see that ‘something’ in something which the rest of us would otherwise pass by.
In Jamaica, trying to get by his way had its frustrations, that’s for sure; and probably a larger city like a New York could have led to more varied and better paying work, give-or-take the odd burned bridge – an agent to play the buffer role would have made, would most importantly have saved him a lot of money!
But it wasn’t money, what he was always looking for, was the respect for the work and the process at home in Jamaica – yet that was always most likely to come from abroad. Like how FIRST magazine got featured in Vanity Fair but yet the first newspaper feature in Jamaica was ‘they’ve been featured in Vanity Fair’. There’s that insecurity where we can’t see our self-worth, not unless foreign tells us we can; and somehow we’d prefer that to be our identity.
Stripping ourselves of our own imagination like that depressed him. Dealing with that while refusing to kiss ass was far harder for him than any effort he put into doing the work itself.
“Point and shoot!” he’d say if you asked for advice. It sounded arrogant but he didn’t take the technical side too seriously, because technically he didn’t have to. People who went to art school would criticise, just like people who say that Miles Davis didn’t have technique – yet that music, these photos, they tell their own stories.
And that’s how it could become boring for him sometimes; and while yes he’d defend it, he didn’t see any mystique in his work, no matter the reaction.
Basic equipment. A 1-megapixel Canon Powershot was what got him into international magazines.
Creativity was the tool that was available, that left his imagination space to do the rest. And that was what was so Jamaican, so Caribbean as well; where so many must make do with so little, yet create something so much more from it – that authenticity.
Though don’t think that his work was throwaway. He loved those little details.
So all that said…
At this point there is plenty of underground appreciation but no mainstream media narrative about him and his work. So remember “MI DEAD!” But The Afflicted Yard, his body of work, lives as a story in itself – one man’s unique story of Jamaica around the time when the millennium turned.
He showed the culture for its complexity – not fake, not pandering and not bleached of its soul.
He left with us a fully laid out book of his photography and an almost finished documentary of two years spent with Ninjaman.
There’s a lot more to be said about his work, more work by younger artists we’re grateful that he inspired; and there’s more to show, that hasn’t been shown yet, and we hope that a lot more people come to experience it.
Thank you #TTFF from Jamaica.
– Ross Sheil, Shayne Morris and Jarmila Jackson