By Jolynna Sinanan, on 18 December 2012
After my first month of fieldwork in El Mirador, I had gotten into a comfortable pattern of hanging out in hubs around the town, chatting with people and keeping up to date with what’s going on in the news and what people were talking about.
The big issue in Trinidad a couple weeks ago surrounded Dr Kublalsingh, a prominent academic at the University of the West Indies (UWI), well known environmental activist and the face of the Highway Re-Route Movement. Dr Kublalsingh and his supporters are opposed to the construction of a section of the highway that is proposed to link the southern towns of Debe and Mon Desir. The protest culminated when Dr Kublalsingh went on hunger strike for 21 days, he set himself up in front of the prime minister’s office in Port of Spain during business hours and continued until the government agreed to review the plans for that section of the highway and release the information informing their decision so far to the public.
Back in El Mirador, I was hearing different opinions on whether Dr Kublalsingh was right or wrong, that the highway is good or bad, that what he and his supporters were doing was meaningful or pointless. I decided that if I was going to understand this better, my camera and I needed to spend some time in Port of Spain.
My first day was Day 15 of Dr Kublalsingh’s hunger strike and the protest had taken a dramatic turning point. His health was deteriorating rapidly with grave implications for permanent organ damage and his family had become far more vocal with concerns that he should stop. On the other hand, Dr Kublalsingh had become very much a celebrity figure and charismatic leader as the face of the movement and for democratic expression in Trinidad. And most of this played out on Facebook. I uploaded my photos from the day and within hours, particular photos had been shared, liked and tagged amongst people I didn’t even know. I followed the movement until it ended, mostly photographing and following the effect of posting photos, which has now opened up a key question for me while I do this research: What does the face in Facebook mean in Trinidad?
Trinidadian anthropologist Dylan Kerrigan reminds us that ‘in political anthropology, the hunger strike is seen as a front-of-stage social drama. It is a cultural performance for a broad audience. It is not just the hunger striker who is on stage. The authorities, politicians, media and general public all become performers in the drama too.’
Here, a lot of the drama was portrayed, polarising and mobilising people online and in the media. More so, I would argue it was the images of Dr Kublalsingh, the toll the strike was taking on his body, the determination in his eyes, the effort that was captured in his media comments at the end of the working day that people responded to and cemented their views on what he was doing. The body was both viewed as “Look at how passionate this man is about his cause” as well as “Look at how crazy this man is and what he is doing to himself” and the same image could be used to reinforce both views.
Dr Gabrielle Hosein at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI argues that Dr Kublalsingh’s hunger strike shows hunger for information, reflective of a country’s hunger for a responsible government, transparency and accountability.
The circulation of images and in particular, an iconic image of a hungry body for a social and environmental movement is indeed a focal point on this very large political stage.
Kerrigan, Dylan, ‘Political jiu-jitsu?’, The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper, 09.12.’12
Hosein, Gabrielle, ‘A hunger strike in a hungry nation’, The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper, 28.11.’12