I’ve been a fan of Peter Dean Rickards’ work (The AFFLICTED Yard) for quite some time so when it came to time to develop cultural projects for The Classics – Series 4: REGGAE, needless to say, his name was the first that came to mind; and fortunately for me he agreed to the interview.
Rickards’ candid shots of life in Jamaica take you on a tour beyond the beaches, sun and fun, giving the viewer an in-depth experience into West Indian life that the majority only get if born and raised there.
In addition to Rickards’ stunning body of work he’s also expanded his media range to include an online publication entitled FIRST and budding video programming.
Check out the read:
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Kingston, migrated at the age of ten and grew up in suburban Toronto, a place called Brampton, Ontario.
That’s a hard one to call. While I think that my environment has always had some influence over the things I create, it’s hard to say how much was directly as a result. I mean, in Canada one is thrown into a society of people from all races and classes so in that sense perhaps I was influenced differently than if I had grown up in Jamaica. Also, I think the structure of Canadian society eventually led me down a path of extremes as a direct result of being so goddamned bored, particularly in my teen years.
Other than environment, however, I think my upbringing was comparatively well rounded. I had loving parents, two sisters and an epileptic dog. By all accounts I should have a very normal life, working a 9-5, married to someone with good table manners, and driving a Volvo instead of photographing crazy people. It just didn’t turn out that way.
Who or what got you interested in photography?
It was a total accident in that I had no thought of doing it before actually doing it. It was just part of a job I was doing at the time that required visuals. I had a small Canon Powershot that I used and when I wasn’t working, I’d take pictures of my girlfriend or the sky or whatever. I really never took it that seriously but after a while I realized it was my primary occupation. I still don’t know how it really happened but once it did, I was hooked to the ‘crack high’ of shooting stuff. With little effort I found that I could communicate in a bigger and faster ways. I suppose it was that realization that kept me doing it (God knows it wasn’t money).
I actually thought of myself as a writer for many years prior to picking up the camera but the camera offered a shortcut that I took because it gave me that instant high of creating something in a fraction of the time it would take to write it down.
When you first started what kind of subject matter were you shooting?
It was all music-related subject matter in the beginning. For two years my ‘job’ was to wake up and go to the basement of a furniture warehouse on Constant Spring road in Kingston where I would webcast Jamaican sound systems live to the Internet for three hours at a time. While I was broadcasting, I’d take pictures of what was going on so people online would have a better sense of the whole experience.
I would never try to define ‘culture’, Jamaican or otherwise. To me, culture is just a type of behavioral code that exists inherently anywhere you go. I think that people who focus on trying to understand ‘culture’ are looking for something to attach themselves to. Culture isn’t something that should be defined. It simply IS and the idea of defining it makes me feel sleepy.
Does music at all play a role in your work? If so, how?
Aside from an initial fascination with the music industry: not really. I mean, music can be a nice partner to visuals and so it’s become more important as I’ve moved into the area of video and film, but I’m not that guy who is going to go out and start photographing shit because I heard something nice on the radio.
The exception to this is Ninjaman who is technically a musician; but I didn’t photograph him because of his musicianship.
Hard to speculate, but I think it’s probably the marijuana, Bob Marley and UB40’s version of ‘Red, Red Wine’ – solid year-to-year stuff that nice white women buy every Christmas and bring with them to all corners of the earth.
Who have been some of your favorite reggae artists and or groups to shoot?
Ninjaman, Sizzla, Killer. Sly and Robbie were interesting as well because of their sheer accomplishments. But then I broke a Guinness bottle in the studio with Robbie Shakesspeare – Christ what a grouch! Like these guys don’t drop beer bottles every Goddamned day?
Did you have existing relationships with your music subject matter prior to shooting? If so, how hard or easy did it make for those sessions?
With the exception of Tanya Stevens and Spragga Benz, I had no prior contact with anyone I’ve photographed in music. Usually I just show up, tell them who I am and what I do, show them the camera, etc.
The sessions are all pretty similar. I don’t use a lot of equipment so once the subject is standing still (which is probably the biggest challenge), I can usually get it done in 10 minutes. Then I go home and look up online courses for air conditioner repair.
What can I say? The landscape is nice. Jamaica is beautiful. It’s hard to screw it up.
No matter what the subject matter is, I look at your pictures and there seems to be a strong connection between you and the image as if you two are having a conversation. How would you describe the relationship between you and your subject?
I think my tactic is actually to distract them. So I say stuff like: “Don’t look at the camera” or “do me a favour and jump off that rock again.” I find that the less concerned they are about not looking like a twat, the better the photographs tend to be. I try to make them feel like I’m not looking at them. I always speak to them with the camera right up to my face so they can’t see my expressions. It’s very disconnected if you ask me.
You show genuine takes of Jamaican life, way outside of the typical (sun, fun, etc..), which I’m assuming ties into your tagline (“A non-registered member of the Jamaica Tourist Board Since 1999”). What prompted to you go that route?
I guess part of that comes from returning to Kingston nearly 14 years ago and finding out that it was not nearly as rebellious a society as I had believed. The tagline grew from that realization and it wasn’t necessarily directed at people abroad who think Jamaica is all about fun and sun (though I haven’t heard of anyone like that in a long time). It was also directed at the droning conservatism of how the media does things here.
Obviously, I found that much of that ‘fun-sun’ feed was coming from people who had an interest in tourist dollars, which isn’t a bad thing in itself but can be very frustrating when there’s no alternative (yes that sort of stuff actually frustrated me).
So, that tagline was really just a way to say that I was trying to do a different sort of feed that had lots to do with Jamaica and very little to do with drawing in tourist dollars.
What do you want people to walk away with from your work?
I haven’t figured that out entirely yet and it’s still hard to think of photography as ‘work.’ While the photography thing came quite accidentally to me, I do remember certain photographs that struck me over the years (Oswald getting shot, Farah Fawcetts poolside poster, etc). I think this is all one can hope for: that an image you were lucky enough to create becomes part of the collective memory. It’s a romantic notion because let’s face it, we’re all dust anyway. Gives your kids something to talk about at school I guess.
I’ve noticed your foray into video programming? Have you always been interested in that medium and how long have you been doing it?
I always loved film and they’ve always been a source of great inspiration to me. In hindsight I think that the photography was a great unplanned education for moving into that area. I picked up a video camera just over a year ago and from the minute I held it, I was using it like a still camera. That was my method and I think it works better because of the ‘training.’ It also forced me to revisit my first real passion – writing stories.
In its digital form, how has FIRST Magazine been received and how do you enjoy that medium?
It’s clear by now that people like it. Someone told me the other day that FIRST is a site ‘you show to your relatives overseas so they can see there is something other than gun violence and dancehall going on at home.’ With all the advantages that the digital medium offers, it’s still a little sad to see the death of print happening before my eyes. A computer screen just doesn’t compare to a physical copy in my opinion.
Visiting Haiti was like visiting New York for the first time having grown up in Toronto. Similar concrete but so much bigger,varied and interesting. I have always been fascinated with Haiti and the Haitians. I’m only sorry I saw Port-au-Prince after the January 12 earthquake, but somehow I think the people are going to come out of it better than they were before.
Build up, destroy, rebuild again.