Bergen op Zoom, The Netherlands, 2000. Photo: Paul van der Stap

Essay in the documentary photo book Carnavalsdagen / Carnival Days by Paul van der Stap (photos) and Elisa Veini  (De Verbeelding Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-90-78909-11-8).

No carnival or mardi gras is like another. Paul has been photographing parades and carnival pub crawls for years. Not so long ago he stood by a frozen field waiting for the first, vague point on the horizon that slowly grew into a parade. At night he would tread the streets regardless of rain, snow or fatigue. Once he also went across the border to photograph the famous Belgian ‘Dirty Jennies’ carnival in Aalst – not without its dangers, given that the Jennies parades take place on the last day of carnival after everyone has been partying for three or four days.

On a wintry day in 2003 we wanted to film a Brabant village carnival. We had worked hard on it. We had found a sturdy old wheelchair in a second-hand shop that we intended to use as a dolly for a moving camera. We also wrote a script, looked at the locations in the village and considered the possible negative effects of light and traffic. When we arrived in De Kladde, with its 250 inhabitants, the most picturesque village in Paul’s repertoire, we unfolded the dolly and wheeled it to the central point of the whole affair, the Café De Klad. The film camera wobbled happily on the chair’s cushion; the script was in my pocket.

It was unpleasantly quiet in the streets. The podium where the mayor was to hand over the key was deserted. A couple of carnival participants trudged down the dike to the stalls where a number of wagons were to start. Behind the windows of the Café De Klad there were red geraniums which were somewhat comical…Geraniums? At carnival? It was peculiar. Light spots on the brick façade indicated the spot where the thick letters of the name of the café had been attached until just recently. The young people of the village told us that the café had been closed down. It was not profitable anymore. They now went out in another place, Lepelstraat, in a neighbouring village. In De Kladde there was now a garage that had been set up temporarily as a carnival pub.

Not that it bothered them or any of the other carnival participants in the least, and I must say that after we got over the initial shock, we also appreciated the atmosphere. We forgot about our script which was no longer usable; we forgot about filming for that matter. No doubt it is the mythical origin of Carnival that explains why the committed photographer steps out of his reasonably comfortable daily life to pull on a ragged jacket, a hat with the stench of beer which can no longer be washed out and – inevitably – a strip of stuffy curtain. Ask him what possessed him, and you have to look not just at the photographer but at every carnival participant. What can you say? It is Carnival. There are the pub crawls. Meeting friends and strangers who are not strangers for four carnival days. There is something natural in the way in which carnival participants become a kinship.

It is perhaps out of nostalgia for this brief period that people want to experience more, and more frequently, the carnival feeling. The fact that building the floats takes up most of the year is a given, partly out of practical and organizational considerations, but also for the social factor. The election of the prince and choice of the carnival song on the eleventh of the eleventh is also a certainty. In addition there are the annual events, the carnival balls and all the other series of happiness and talent tests focussing on the goal of carnival. And then there are the emblems.

There was an emblem fair in Bergen op Zoom in January 2008, the first of its kind. Emblems are a marvelous example of a new tradition. After the Second World War the Bergen Vastenavond Foundation decided to introduce the medieval family and guild emblems into carnival. The emblem which is sold and worn during carnival is a club symbol. The fair is an initiative of collectors who find that there are so few emblems left that exchange is no longer possible. People have even started to make replicas in the moulds that still exist from the post-war emblems. As a coveted collector’s item the insignia is material evidence of ‘club’ euphoria. The collector is not looking for a complete collection perhaps as much as the infinite extension of his euphoria. But four days are only four days. The other 361 are spent – sighing with yearning – and full of anticipation for the next event.

For a long time carnival was a thorn in the eye of the moral authorities. In the first half of the twentieth century, many places wanted, if not to forbid carnival, at least to restrain it. The fear of moral decline was so great that influential carnival enthusiasts had to intercede to change the tide in favour of the celebration of celebrations. Anton Van Duinkerken, who was born in Bergen op Zoom understood better than anyone else that carnival was close to the essence of life. And he knew all about it: in his young years he had studied for the priesthood. In his Brabantse herinneringen (Memories of Brabant) he reported about the carnival of 1928: ‘I was overwhelmed by a wild ecstasy’.

In the same year Van Duinkerken published an exposé named Defence of Carnival that has become famous. His passionate appeal for the continuation of the spring celebration reveals a deep seriousness:

‘This celebration is more than a social or national event. It does not attract just a certain group of people, but humanity as a whole. It is the celebration of the renewed youth of the grey-haired old man and the man-in-coming of the no longer timid boy. It is the joy of eternal spring. It is the celebration of our immortality.’

For the outsider, the almost nostalgic manner in which carnival participants hold on to their celebration is as strange as the urgency that is clear in Van Duinkerken’s text. What could better feed the attraction of carnival than the balance between what is forbidden and what is tolerated that characterizes some of the carnival manifestations.

The ‘Dirty Jennies’ parade in the Western Flanders city of Aalst has been a point of contention with the city for years. The transvestite parade is considered by many to be less than positive for the reputation of the city. Regulations have been drawn up that are intended. to control not only the clothing but also the behaviour of the ‘Jennies’. The transvestite parade was considered to be not good for the reputation of the city. Restrictions have been drawn up that regulate not just the dress of the ‘Jennies’ but their behaviour. And indeed: the photographer notices a change in Aalst. Whereas the ‘Jennies’ did more or less what they wanted ten years ago, the parade of 2003 was if not chaste – chaster. The traditional repertoire of the ‘Jennies’ – the well-known penta-tych of the dried herring in a birdcage, a chicken leg, a lampshade, an umbrella and a pram – continued, but there was absolutely no more obscenity. The number of onlookers, everyday visitors on a day trip, did increase, photo club members working for a weekend on an assignment, even Dutch people. The ‘Dirty Jennies’ has become a worthwhile experience.

Carnival is a celebration that loses its charm when the participants just become onlookers. Go to the parade in Bergen op Zoom and you will see that everyone along the streets is also a participant. The street is part of carnival; someone who is watching is as much of a participant as a float-builder or the prince. Or the photographer who does not think it strange to buy a bit of curtain on the national holiday, even if it will not be ten months before he will make use of it. The passion, the obsession remains.

We travelled through the North-East of Brazil in 2001. We talked to activists in the urban slums about social change; we visited barren hamlets, we visited projects for small farmers; we were looking for contacts for a documentary project that we were working on. Our work moved easily. Until the photographer heard about a local carnival deep in the interior that is supposed to be so fascinating.

As of that moment he is obsessed. We have to go. there. Non-existing bus connections are disentangled, hotels that have no telephones are called, unwritten books full of secondary details are consulted. Twenty-four hours later we are in a rattling American school bus from the fifties that has a breakdown twice while we are underway, whereupon we land in a small town that was identical to hundreds of other small towns. It is an appalling, desolated spot. Everyone who can move has gone to one of the larger cities. We book a room in a decrepit small hotel hoping for a long night of quiet. In the morning we are awakened by an unbelievable noise. The youth has returned. The photographer jumps. up. Carnival feeling. The universal feeling of the party of our immortality.

The carnival in the interior of the North-East is totally different from the carnival in Rio. There is hardly any Samba to be heard. Two very heavy lorries have been placed at strategic points in the centre. These are the trios electricos, mobile podia with amps on which local bands keep us from sleeping until early in the morning. The noise accompanies us to the market and the bakery – which is also the only café of the city; it accompanies us to the supermarket and sits at the table with us at lunch. Even when try to have crucial talks for our documentary it interrupts our sentences. The photographer is terribly pleased: even if he had to miss his Shrove Tuesday, the year is not totally lost. It goes without saying that we will not be undertaking another far-flung trip in February next year. As interesting and universal as the other carnival may be, it is never the same.

The pub crawl has long dwindled into the night. The curtain has been torn and crumpled, the decorations of the carnival jacket smell of the spilled beer of the three previous evenings, the eye shadow is not just mascara. The carnival band plays the last song for the hundredth time. Carnival celebrants do not think about the icy cold during the parade, not about the main prize that they lost, not about all of the off-cooled carnival love and not about the headache waiting for them in the morning. It is a moment for which they are willing to give everything.


The book Carnavalsdagen / Carnival Days is available in the webshop of Slowdocs Publishers of through your favourite bookshop.