Ben, paddleboarder, Nairn beach, 30 December 2020 // ©Alexander Williamson
The Story behind the Portrait
I took this photograph of Ben near the close of 2020. It had snowed heavily overnight; the first time Nairn had seen ankle-deep snow in almost four years. In the morning, I left the house early with my two sons, and took them to sledge at Nairn Links, a common ground overlooking the Moray firth.
While my sons sledged with their friends, I walked up and down the beach asking people if I could take their portrait in the snow. From the beach, I could see a lone paddleboarder out on the choppy water, trying to stay upright in the middle of a blizzard. While I waited for him to come in, I took a photograph of two women walking a dog. When I pointed out the paddleboarder to them, one of the women said, shaking her head, “I hope that’s not my son”. The paddleboarder eventually came in and, sure enough, he was – and when he raised his board to reveal the Loco logo, it seemed too perfect.
This photograph is one of a series of portraits I have been working on, peripatetically, for the past 12 months. Initiated in January 2020 and taking its inspiration from Visit Scotland’s themed Year of Coast and Waters, my intention was to document the year in Nairn: one typically punctuated by farm shows, Highland games, funfairs, sailing regattas, golf tournaments and so on. I wanted to focus specifically on portraits of everyday people, shot in natural light with minimal equipment. Being self-taught, every project I embark upon involves a lot of false starts and a pretty steep learning curve. As a relative newcomer to Nairn – and having struggled to settle in and meet new people – it also seemed a good way to connect with the local community.
Unfortunately, Covid-19 put paid to these plans. In March, when we went into lockdown, I became deeply depressed at having to abandon the project. It seemed too dangerous, too self-centred and bone-headed, to be out trying to get portraits of people under the circumstances.
Besides, the pandemic made people suspicious and wary of one another. Out on your daily walk, you kept your distance. Stood well back.
During the summer, the inconvenience and inherent riskiness of air travel compelled a lot of local people to stay put. In the Highlands we are lucky –there are unspoilt beaches, vast forests and remote mountains in abundance. Now others began to drift north.
At the same time, many in the community began using the natural environment as a means to distance themselves from the realities of the pandemic. Before long Nairn’s beaches were teeming with people swimming, kite surfing, sailing, paddleboarding – or simply out walking in the warm glow of the waning light.
Even though it was supposed to be onmipresent, Covid never really reached Nairn – though we found out later there were people in town who didn’t survive it. When I started the project, I had been working as a photographer at the local newspaper, The Nairnshire Telegraph, one of the last bastions of grassroots news, though barely clinging on. Now it is defunct – another victim of the pandemic.
Work dried up for both myself and my wife and we didn’t get a huge amount of Government support. But we muddled on – home-schooling and working ad hoc – and this project kept me going, banished the black dog to his basket. It got me out meeting new people, having conversations, hearing stories. Making work. Sometimes that’s the best you can hope for.
Many in the community began using the natural environment as a means to distance themselves from the realities of the pandemic. Before long Nairn’s beaches were teeming with people swimming, kite surfing, sailing, paddleboarding – or simply out walking in the warm glow of the waning light.
Alexander Williamson is a writer and photographer based in the Scottish Highlands.
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