Last month we asked Chris Willan, professional photographer, to capture our activities in Jamaica and Mexico. It’s the first time Chris has shot for us in these locations, so we asked him to share his experience. He’s back from his trip and here’s what he had to say…
The brief arrives from TF. What’s your first thought? Be honest!
You always have a huge shopping list! It was a massive brief, but I like a challenge, it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. I’ve shot in both locations before, but Mexico was more of an unknown for me, I’d not really been off the beaten track before so I was really excited about going to some of the villages and visiting a pearl farm. When you first said Cancun I just thought of hotel strips, I could not have been more surprised. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable trips I have done in a long time. It has everything, you just need to know where to find it.
You visited the Rastafari Indigenous Village in Jamaica, what do you think holidaymakers will enjoy most?
Having arrived via a beautiful tropical garden, Arlene greets you, and introduces you to the concept behind the village, and then you have to go barefoot through the river to reach the village. It’s only ankle deep and is a lovely experience. You’re given a stave and encouraged to celebrate water and the life it gives, which is very important in Rastafari culture. It’s a great sensory experience – most people don’t do that on a daily basis! Throughout the day you learn lots about the Rastafari lifestyle, and the Emperor Haile Selassie I from Ethiopia, and why it became a way of living and a religion. I actually knew a fair bit about this because I was born in East Africa and my father has a picture of me next to the Emperor Haile Selassie I when he was on a state visit to Uganda!
You spent some time in Montego Bay, did you find any hidden charms?
I find as a traveller the most charming things are the real things, real life happening. I prefer quieter places to reflect and my favourite place here was Dump-Up Beach, one of the few public beaches left; it’s where the locals gather. I just liked sitting down there watching people play football, and seeing families gather. It had a real community feel, and I really like seeing people enjoying the place naturally, when you know it’s not a spectacle for tourism. It has a feel that it’s ‘real’ Jamaica.
In Mexico, you visited two communities in the Yucatan peninsula, one making jam and the other honey products. What are their surroundings like?
Firstly, I visited the jam making community in Chumpon. The indication that we’d arrived was an enormous tree in the centre of the village – their Trafalgar square! My first thought was that there isn’t very much there, a little shop, and some houses varying in their construction, some modern and some very traditional. There’s quite a lot of contrast – modern cars parked outside very traditional houses, and the jam factory is modern and well equipped. One thing that really stood out with this group was that they were so grateful to the project because it would mean that their children wouldn’t need to leave the village to go and work in hotels in Cancun. They could continue with their traditional way of life, and they really appreciated that they could continue to live this way. The village that’s home to the group making honey products had a very similar feel, again a big tree marking the centre. A lot of the village seemed very engaged with the project, and they were very welcoming and accepting. It was a really enjoyable experience, but I was a bit against the clock! Sometimes you need to put a bit of gasoline on the fire to get the shots you need. There is so much to learn from the Mayan culture, they’re great to listen to and it leaves a lot of questions about how we live today.
You met a lot of people during your time overseas. Who sticks in your mind, and why?
Yuritzin Flores, TF’s programme manager in Mexico. She has an aura around her that just says she is the perfect person for the job, I have never seen anyone so welcomed by so many people in so few days. She’s hard working, was concerned with everything going smoothly, constantly sending messages to update everyone if we were running late etc. She was the stand out personality – you can often feel like the lone warrior in sustainable tourism, but through her you realise there is actually an army of people out there concerned with the same thing.
In Jamaica, it would have to be Pauline at the craft market in Mo Bay. She took me under her wing and made sure I was ok, she got me some food, we had a laugh together and everytime I went past the market she’d give me a big wave and made sure everyone else made me welcome too. She made me feel like I was travelling with my mum – if anything was wrong I knew I could go to Pauline and she’d make it all ok!
Every good photographer needs to keep their energy up with some good food. What dishes shone in Jamaica, and in Mexico?
In Jamaica my best meal was rice and peas and goat curry in the market in Mo Bay. There isn’t much meat in a goat curry, and you will get told off if you don’t suck the bones! It’s spicy and definitely very Jamaica. The fresh juices were also great. I sat eating it on a broken chair with lots of people around me doing the same, it made me feel like I was at a family dinner.
In Mexico everything is great, but I’d have to choose the handmade tortillas I had in Chumpon. Everyone ate communally in a central building with a thatched roof, and the tortillas came with a paste made from roast pumkpin seeds, tomatoes, shallots, fresh cheese (which is like cottage cheese in the UK), and sauces, all washed down with Pitahi juice. It was absolutely delicious. For me though, food isn’t just about taste, it’s about experience, and getting to eat with the locals, and watching them prepare it from scratch was great.
Down to the nitty gritty…Jamaica – favourite picture? Just one! And why?
Dump-Up Beach, it was the end of the day and I knew within 20 minutes they’d be no light left for the rest of the day, the light was good and I got the perfect shot of locals playing football on the beach.
Again, it was the end of the day and I was waiting for the sun to go down over Isla Mujeres and I was watching some pelicans flying around. I often think the ‘end of the day’ pictures sum up how your day went. The sunset gave a feeling of calm, and the energy was coming from the Pelicans – it really summed up how the trip had gone.
That’s why you become a photographer. The camera has given me a passport to an amazing life, taking pictures is the first and last thing I think about every day, and at 51 I’m still looking forward to my best years. With photography you can get better as time goes on, the experience gives you the understanding you need to get a great picture.