Somewhere down in the Eastern Carribbean exists a tiny little island named Montserrat. It is a place of exotic beauty where everyone makes you feel as though you have come home. The mountains are lush with green, the unique black sand beaches are lapped with clear blue water and the soft constant breeze cools the sunning iguanas.
This is all true of the North side of the island but it is quite the opposite in the South. In 1995, Montserrat had barely begun to recover from the devastation Hurricane Hugo had unleashed on it six years earlier, when an unexpected surprise would change the island forever. The great Soufriere Hills had become an active volcano and right in its path was the capital city of Plymouth. The evacuation was fast and for most, permanent. Ten thousand residents of the island dispersed to create a new life for themselves while approximately five thousand remained to try to pick up the pieces. Sadly, they were hit a few more times with major eruptions in 2006 and 2010.
I had the great fortune to visit this island in April and was overwhelmed by the pride and love the residents have for their island. From Sonny our private tour guide to Arnold our favourite fisherman, everyone welcomed us into their world.
For a photographer it was almost visual overload. I kept thinking I should have taken the road of landscape photographer but alas it is definitely not my forté.
Equipped with my Canon 5D Mark III and a Tamron 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD lens, I did my best to capture the ash puffing softly from the hidden anger of the volcano underneath but cloud cover was almost a constant obstacle. Apparently it is very rare to have a clear sky above the volcano so I worked with what I had at dawn and managed a few shots.
After trying my hand at the landscape world of photography I was happy to move on to what I love to do, which is my conceptual work. With my daughter as my trusty model, we made our way into an area called Richmond Hill, on the outskirts of Plymouth. Here you find what was once the posh part of the suburbs, covered in ash. It is an absolutely heartbreaking reality to see, but selfishly for a conceptual photographer, the possibilities were endless.
One spot in particular that was fairly easily accessible, was the Montserrat Hotel which used to be THE place to stay. The rooms are now half-buried, the pool filled with plant overgrowth, a dining room turned jungle and a grand entranceway that was uninviting at best.
We made our way down one of the outdoor hallways where I created the photo “The Remains of Room 357”. It was like a giant sandbox for my daughter.
We then went back the next day for the pool shot “A Dip in History”. You may remember this is the island that was home to Air Studios of Sir George Martin fame. I imagined Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Sting, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Sir Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed among many others all taking a dip in this pool at one time. Who knows, rock stars swim too, right?
While we’re on the topic of legends, I just want to mention a photography legend, Linda McCartney. Olveston House is owned by Sir George Martin (managed the Beatles) and it is open for 11 months out of the year to the public as a guesthouse and restaurant. The safe and trusting vibe of the island extends to Olveston House as well, as we were allowed to poke around the house at our leisure. I was blown away when I turned down one hallway to find a row of original, signed Linda McCartney black and whites hanging one after the other. I stood there gaping at the portraits of John, Paul and even the local children of the island. An unexpected delight!
With the volcano still quietly active 20 years later, the island is sadly off the tourism radar. For the avid photographer this island is a rare find, not only do you get to discover the magic and beauty of Montserrat, you get to help support an island trying to rebuild its legacy. The other plus now is that what was once an island of almost unaffordable luxury, is now a place that is more modest in its cost. With no grand hotels or luxury resorts, the small guesthouses and inns are a wonderful place to get to know the islanders. Local produce is on every roadside and surprisingly, Montserrat boasts some of the cleanest water in the world.
If you’re itching to head to the Caribbean and want a little adventure added to your vacation, Montserrat is the place for you. A photographer’s playground in a modern day Pompeii.
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