Feature: GIS Stalwart Calls It A Day

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BGIS Cinematographer, Peter Roy Byer, shooting with an old film camera.

For the past 40 years, he has photographed thousands of persons; from royalty, presidents, and prime ministers to the ordinary man. Through his lens, he has captured indelible moments of the social, cultural and political landscape of Barbados over that time, and has worked with all of our political leaders who have held the reins of government.

Come month-end, however, it will be the turn of celebrated Cinematographer, Peter Roy Marsden Byer, to bid farewell to one stage of his career; one which he has nurtured and developed for four decades in Bay Street.

The name Peter Roy Byer has become synonymous with the Barbados Government Information Service (BGIS) over the years. His has been the cinematic vision, the standard bearer, for many young professionals who have since joined the field.

The 65-year-old will officially go on retirement leave on December 24, and commence a new chapter in his life.

Born on Christmas Eve 1945, Byer’s love affair with photography began at an early age and would eventually lead him to places some Barbadians could only dream of, from the White House to Buckingham Palace.

"I first saw a camera at age seven in Knights Limited on Broad Street and I thought it looked interesting… As we left the photo studio, I told my mother I wanted one of those, and she said when you grow up, you can buy one. I’ve bought a few since that one," he recollected with a smile.

After that initial exposure to photography, Mr. Byer became very engrossed in the field, but it wasn’t until 1960 that he started to take it seriously as a hobby and later as a vocation.

"I first started with a Brownie camera, then I had another little 620 camera.?? You don’t see those anymore, and eventually where I went to school, a fellow from St. Lucy opened a photo studio next door. So, once I heard photography, I was there. I would go there every day between lunch and after school," he recalled.

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BGIS Cinematographer, Peter Roy Byer, in discussion with colleague Carl Allman during an assignment at the old Hilton Hotel.??

Mr. Byer applied for a job at the BGIS in 1968, but was unsuccessful. He was invited back in 1973, and while initially adamant he would not take the job, he was convinced by his aunt to do otherwise, working as both a stills and motion picture photographer.??

"I would use both formats. I remember covering an assignment in Baltimore when Caribbean Airways first flew into the USA in 1978. I was able to set the camera running, got the speeches and did all the other shots with the ribbon cutting and such. When I came back I had pictures for the newspapers and video footage for BGIS and Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)," he recounted.

Mr. Byer has lent his cinematic skills and talent to many popular BGIS productions over the years, including Journal 5, Agroscope, On Camera and the award-winning documentary ???Freedom Is’, which chronicled the history of the first free village in Barbados, Rock Hall, St. Thomas.

To describe Mr. Byer as a strong personality would be an understatement. Unapologetically blunt and straightforward, he pulls no punches when he speaks on any issue, whether it be politics, the future of cinematography in Barbados, or a discussion on the calypso art form.??

At times controversial and other times outspoken, he, however, displays a genuine love for his profession and the persons who have led him to this point in his life, including photographer Murray Corbin, his renowned contemporaries Gordon Brooks and Willie Alleyne, as well?? as the late Cyprian LaTouche Junior and Paul Mandeville.

However, "the man I have to credit for the knowledge I have gained whilst on the job was the late Richard Barnett…I relied heavily on him, particularly during my sojourn at CBC. These days, I play dominoes with Willie… he beats me sometimes but we allow him to win on occasions, so he will keep coming back," the 65-year old said with a smile.??

At the BGIS, he cites former Chief Information Officer, the late Gordon Roach and Information Officer, Nolan Sealy, as others who knew quite a lot about the workings of the motion picture industry.

"Mr. Roach would eventually see to it that I went to London and to a place called the Overseas House and Television Centre… Once we were there, we went to every [film] place in Britain, so we could gain knowledge and do the diploma exam. I was always more of a hands-on person in terms of film, not really much into reading but the change in technology, that is, the transition from celluloid to electronic recording called for a lot of reading, if you wanted to stay on top," Mr. Byer pointed out.

He laments that not enough respect and consideration are given to workers in the technical and creative fields, such as videographers. It is a perception which he feels should be changed.

"There are people who have not had the training I have had, yet they try to dictate how you should do your work [in the field of cinematography]. You shouldn’t dictate, talk down or talk around me, you should talk with me. I found very few people were willing to talk with me," he remarked.

Mr. Byer added that the modern photography business presents several challenges to the professionals.

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GIS Cinematographer, Peter Roy Byer, poses with former world heavyweight boxing champion, Evander Holyfield and former Information Officer, Michael Sabazan (left) and GIS Camera Assistant, Cameron Layne (right), in the VIP lounge of the Grantley Adams International Airport.

"Photography is no longer camera work…I will die saying that change must come, but this change does not suit me. I couldn’t get into photography now as everybody has access to something that can take photographs. How would he [the photographer] live today, how would he survive? The professional photographer is under siege," he stressed.

Kaiso

Mr. Byer’s other love is calypso music, and this devotion led him to form the Kingdom of Super Gladiators at Waterford, St. Michael, a tent which he established in 1987.

"All along in school, there were two things that I was interested in that my classmates knew – calypso music and photography. Initially, I would assist persons who worked in calypso tents and were into calypso music by offering them advice; but in 1987, I got totally involved in the tent business and I’ve been doing this now for 24 years non-stop. After I left the first tent that I formed, Battlefield, I then went into Gladiators, and Super Gladiators has been here for 24 years non-stop," he revealed.

Describing calypso as the best music genre in the world, he believes too much focus has been placed on the competition aspect to the detriment of the art form itself.

According to Mr. Byer, emphasis should not be placed on who is the best calypsonian, but Barbadians should recognise the invaluable contribution many persons have made to the genre. "Calypso is a social commentary. It is storytelling put to song and we have quite a good few storytellers [here]," he observed.

Mr. Byer recalled in the early 1950s when he was first introduced to calypso music, a neighbour would play his phonograph quite loudly.

"I could hear my neighbour’s music and my aunt had a gramophone as well. She had a lot of old 1930s and 40s standards and that type of sentimental music, while my neighbour had calypso. I liked the rhythm and I memorised the lyrics, I liked what the entertainers were singing. The first person I heard was a gentleman called Lord

Kitchener, and I liked what I was hearing and I kept listening. I also listened to Lord

Beginner, coming right down to the Mighty Sparrow. Later, when the tents got started in Barbados, I would pass on ideas to the calypsonians and move with them, kaisomen such as Destroyer, Grynner and Gabby," he reminisced.

He cites his mother’s passing in 1987 as a turning point in his life, when he decided to focus more on calypso music. "It sort of set me back to the point where I started to feel a lot of pressure that I didn’t have before. In order to get over her passing, I started to get involved totally in calypso and that is when I really got involved with Battlefield tent. That first year, we ended up with Bumba as the king…then I moved on the following year."

Mr. Byer strongly believes in giving young persons the opportunity to explore the calypso art form, mentoring countless youth who have passed through the gates of Waterford.

"We are going 24 years now. Over that time, we have had more than 100 gladiators passing through, about 36 were women. We don’t discriminate because one of the founding members of the Gladiators is Singing Francine. The other is ???Patches’ Mendoza who has passed on… The tent never makes money, and we hardly get sponsorship, but the Gladiators will continue," he said.

There’s no doubt Peter Roy Byer has left his mark, not only on the BGIS, but on local photography, cinematography and calypso. For him, retirement does not mean that his camera has been laid to rest. Don’t expect him to ride quietly off into the sunset, for he has an abiding love for the profession.

"I was always interested in photography, which I entered on March 11, 1961, and here I am still today. I will never be a former cameraman or photographer… I will always be a cameraman, I will die a cameraman. Professions like mine never become former. We are always on top of the job," Mr. Byer remarked.

His colleagues at the Barbados Government Information Service wish him well as he embarks on his new journey.

andre.skeete@barbados.gov.bb

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