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May 28, 2009

Behind the Image: The Night Parade at Curacao's Carnival Celebration

NATURAL NEON: Carnival in Curacao (Nathan Borchelt)

Of all the places that I've been lucky enough to photograph, the Night Parade (or Marcha Despedida) that marks the end of Curacao's weeklong Carnival celebrations each March ranks as one of the downright best times.

Fueled by tumba (an infectious, relentless local music that fuses Latino, African, and Caribbean rhythms), it's a full-on street party that starts well before dusk and goes on long after the parade ends. But the highlight is undeniably the parade itself, which boasts over 70 groups that work on their float and costume themes throughout the year. The costumes run the gamut, from elaborate getups that involve stilts and yards of fabric to simple concepts with just pajamas and a bright green afro wig. I don't think I've taken so many photographs in such a short period in my entire career.

So, yeah, it was hard to narrow it down to just one photo (check out a bunch more in this photo gallery, along with some background on the parade itself). But I chose this one because it captured the vibrancy, chaos, and sheer dizziness of the spectacle. I was on the street, first at the Curacao Tourism Board observation booth, but crossed the street and ducked underneath the crowd barrier so I could have a bit more room. Turns out that I was occupying another "group's" real estate, so I was instructed by a stern local woman that I could stay and take pictures but that I had to leave as soon as I was done. Then the parade started, and not five minutes later, she was offering me food from the grill and drink from the coolers stashed behind the tables.

That pretty much embodies the festive, convivial atmosphere of the parade. Everyone (parade-goers and audience members alike) was dancing and singing, everyone had drinks in their hands (runners actually ferried food and drink from the floats to the costumed participants throughout the parade), but the overall vibe was decidedly more family-oriented than the lazy sins you might see in New Orleans Mardi Gras. You also got the sense that everyone knew everyone (save for us tourists); parade-goers would typically swing over and shake hands with the audience, or stop and chat, or grab a drink, a bite to eat...

I also love the overall blend of colors that occur here—I just closed the flash on my Nikon D80, waited for a vibrant string of costumes (which wasn't long) and let the camera's image sensor keep the shutter open long enough to imprint an image, and just shot and shot and shot. Then, after I got home, I tried various crops in Photoshop until I got this one (I particularly like how the left margin is defined by the splash of colors and the slightly recognizable smile of the center figure). The image almost looks painted, rather than photographed.

The next day (after slowly recuperating from too much of that free beer), I was wandering around the Curacao capital of Willemstad, and came across Jolanta Pawlak, a local artist who came to Curacao by way of Poland. In her Maravia Gallery, in addition to a wide selection of her hand-crafted jewelry, were a series of Carnival photos she'd taken the previous year. Blurred details of the costumes, cropped tight, without so much as one straight line. It was like something off of a French Impressionist's canvas. And it made me want to go back next year and try it all again.

- When shooting long-exposure shots, use a tripod or, barring that, anything that can help stabilize the camera (the top of a car, a mailbox).

- Getting the parade-goer's attention was a breeze. Just saying "Photo, photo" and holding up your camera (and sometimes just the latter gesture) will get them to strike a pose. And security was pretty lax; I was able to duck under the barriers and intermingle with the parade... at least until the cops showed or a huge bus came rumbling up the parade route, overloaded with generators that powered the lights and sound systems. In other words, don't be bashful. And remember, a smile will earn you favors.

Check out our interactive map of Curacao, with more photos, hotel and beach picks, screensavers, features, and more!.

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Related Topics: Caribbean Travel · Exotic Escapes · Holidays, Events, & Festivals · Travel Photography


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