Notting Hill Carnival: 10 photographers recount their stories of the parade
Notting Hill Carnival, sadly, is deferred for another year due to the pandemic.
In 2020, the sprawling celebration of Caribbean and sound system culture was taken off the streets, with the organisers opting instead for a digital version of events. The vibrant parade won’t be returning to London again this year, but, nonetheless, it remains a cultural highlight on the summer calendar.
Though we won’t be able to join an IRL procession, the message and ethos behind Carnival can still be celebrated this weekend. In the absence of its physical parade, we asked 10 photographers to select their favourite images captured at Carnival. Below, photographers such as Vivek Vadoliya, Babycakes Romero and Dolapo Olasimbo talk about how they’ve chosen to capture the spirit of Carnival, and recount the stories behind those moments.
This image was taken towards the end of Carnival, for a commission for British Vogue. It was towards the end of the afternoon, people were starting to wind, I spotted these two women walking through the streets and got talking to them. Beautiful and electric as always, it was a hot sunny day so the turnout was incredible with everyone smiling. I remember I hadn’t been to Carnival for a few years before this one and realised how much I love and miss it!
I took this shot at the tail-end of J’Ouvert in 2016. I normally cycle from Peckham early on Sunday to capture the setup of the sound systems. I love being one of the first people down there and it’s a chance to chat to people before it gets too crazy.
This particular year I was cycling over the bridge on Ladbroke Grove and decided to turn around. I saw this lone figure walking behind me and had to stop. It was kinda eerie. I like the image because it’s a rare moment of solitude in an otherwise hectic weekend.
I started going to Notting Hill Carnival fairly regularly from about 1981 up until the last one in 2019, and sometimes would take photos and sometimes go along for the enjoyment.
In those early days, although Carnival was held on a Sunday and Monday, there were always parties and sound systems setting up and testing the speakers on the Saturday night. There would be a real sense of anticipation especially along All Saint’s Road (often known as the Frontline), and the Mangrove – as featured in the Steve McQueen film – would be bouncing.
These photos were both taken in 1994. I came across the young boys sitting next to the speaker boxes trying to cope with the volume of Manasseh Sound System on Westbourne Park Road. I only took the one photo of them but it has been used a few times on record sleeves including Little Sound Boy (VP Records).
This was a special moment: just as I arrived at the Paddington Arts Centre, the Origin Moko Jumbie group were doing a fitting of their Lonely Londoners costumes, which were designed to mark the 70th anniversary of the Windrush arrival. Then these two passersby happened to ask for a photo with the stilted group, it was perfect.
For me, this captures much of what is so beautiful about Carnival – the flair, creativity and theatrics, all underpinned with a protest message. Origin’s costume designer, Alan Vaughan, told me at the time: “For the Carnival days, it is our street, where the street is our stage. Traffic stops, everybody stops. On those days we take possession of the street.” I think that’s something we need to carry forward in these times.
I took this photo when I was in a crowd following the floats and stages. It was one of the hottest days of the year. I remember sweating and dancing in the humidity with my friends. It was a really fun day, full of smiles and great music. I can’t wait for Carnival to return!
Voodoo child – Notting Hill Carnival 2006, 40th anniversary. The year was 2006. I was 26 and studying Fine Art Photography in London. For the first time in my life, I was commissioned to shoot a documentary project for a travel magazine I was addicted to my whole life. My dream came true and I fancied myself a Magnum photographer on his way to becoming the second Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Digital was already around but I decided to shoot on an old 35mm camera with E-6 slide film, like the masters. It was my first time immersing myself into this incredible Caribbean cultural phenomenon in the heart of London. The energy was raw and exciting, sounds and people merging together from all directions into a vibrant mix.
In the midst of this beautiful chaos, a young boy was dancing to his own tune. In sync with the rest but completely in his own world. I couldn’t help myself, I had a split second to shoot one frame and the moment was gone.
This image was taken at the Disya Jeneration sound system on Powis Terrace at the Carnival of 2014. I have been documenting this sound system and the crowd that attend it every year since 2007.
The atmosphere is always incredible at Disya Jeneration and has got better year in, year out. A totally diverse crowd descend en masse to this little street and turn it into the best and biggest block party you could possibly imagine. People come and have the time of their lives and when you see thousands of like-minded folk all dancing to the same beat, bouncing up and down in sync as one, there is nothing like it.
On the day this shot was taken it poured down relentlessly, but it did not dampen the spirits of the Carnival-goers. If anything, they looked like they were having more fun as they splashed around defiantly in the rain. If it’s wet at Carnival it does reduce the crowds a bit, but the ones that are left are the ones who are going to party no matter what. Their unwavering commitment gave that day such a buzz.
I chose this shot in particular as the guy in the centre is leaping with joy, and his spirit sums up the vibe perfectly. Then as you look around at the rest of the crowd in the picture it is not just him; everyone is enjoying themselves and having a blast regardless of the rain.
My only aim as a regular photographer of Carnival is to capture the utter joy it generates, and to document what an incredibly uplifting and positive event it is. 99.9 percent of people who go there just want to have a great time and they do. There is a microscopic element of the million plus attendees who cause a bit of trouble and that is what the established media still focus on, so I am always consciously trying to show another narrative – which is a story of joy and unity. For me, and most people there, [it’s] the true story of Carnival.
I was waiting for the parade to pass by the spot I had chosen for shooting, when I saw this woman walking in her parade costume holding a feather crown. What attracted me the most about her was the fact that she didn’t seem fitting in [with] the Carnival mood, very much absorbed in her thoughts.
I shot Notting Hill Carnival twice, in 2018 and in 2019. The first time I was there I kept myself on the edges, among the spectators, behind the ropes that define the separation between the viewers and the performers. The second time instead I arrived quite early and I had the chance to stay inside the ropes border, which was a totally different experience.
While the first time I was fascinated by the parade itself, the second time my attention went on the people attending the parade. Not just the performers but the crowd in general. I noticed how people usually walk in groups and how they interact with each other, especially young people. You can definitely see that they are having a lot of fun and that they have probably waited for that special day the whole year.
I took this picture on Ladbroke Grove, just north of the bridge by the big Sainsbury’s, on the afternoon of Sunday 25 August 2019. It was part of a longer photo essay commissioned by Liane Radel at New York Magazine’s The Cut.
There was a heatwave in London at the time, so both Sunday and Monday were baking hot. The atmosphere at Carnival is always joyful and electric, but it felt particularly sensual that day with all the heat intensifying the golden light, the smell of cooking heavy on the air, the music, the bass coming through the tarmac. It’s impossible not to look back on it with total longing given that days like that have been impossible for such a long time.
Carnival is always very well-documented in the press, and I felt there tended to be a few types of images that I always saw, usually focusing on the scale of the crowds, elaborate mass costumes and people in motion. I wanted to take a more intimate, personal view, so I focused on making portraits of individuals, seeking out moments of quiet or respite during all the intensity.
Carni 2017, Portobello Road. On this year I decided to shoot a bunch of 120mm.
I remember the atmosphere was so lively. I was with my best friends and family on the Mangrove Red Bull Float as Heatwave and Benjamin D played. We made our way down Portobello Road and I noticed these four people who had jumped up on this box for a skank outside the old Falafel King. I jumped off the float to catch the moment – it was such a vibe! To me, this captures the Carnival spirit perfectly.
This was one of my favourite Carnivals: the music, the people and the energy. There’s no better party in London.