I'm currently typing this as a memo on my blackberry, sitting 39,382ft in the air travelling at 510mph on a flight returning home from St. Lucia - my first destination wedding!
But this trip turned out to be much more than just a nice vacation and wedding photo session. The country truly left me speechless and wanting more, with so many amazing memories, visuals and experiences.
The thing that fascinated me most was not the extreme beauty of the mountainous landscape, but the people who call it home. I will say upfront that it's not for everyone, at times throughout my 7 day stay the people were incredibly cheerful - but sometimes they seemed more dangerous and in some cases clearly distressed. It was really an eye-opening journey I'll never forget because going into this I was under the impression St. Lucia was one of the premier carribbean destinations, but surprisingly I found it to be on the verge of poverty rather than luxury.
Perhaps the most unexpected part of my trip began immediately after landing, and I'm not talking about the 30'C heat. The resort I was staying at was located on the northwest side of the island - complete opposite in relation to the airport, which meant after the 5 hour flight I had a 1.5 hour shuttle (small van) drive through the countryside, fishing towns and villages before ever reaching my actual destination.
No longer than 10mins into the drive I realised this was no ordinary place and this drive would be unlike any other I've taken in my entire life. While most people in the van with me were kind of upset about the drive, I was thrilled and definitely pulled out my camera.
As it turns out I think the photos I took during the drive to and from the resort are actually some of the most compelling images I've ever taken - pushing the boundaries and out of my comfort zone. I had no choice but to adopt the classic sort of Henry Cartier Bresson "shooting from the hip" look since the van was constantly moving - at times going 100km/hr, or winding up down and all around through hills and rainforest villages. It was hard enough just to keep myself from being nauseous let alone take photos out a tiny window as everything sped by outside. But thankfully I made it work and some keys to success were high ISO, shutter speed priority and constantly keeping my eyes on the road ahead in anticipation of what might pass by my window next.
Some photos merely document the setting: houses on pillars to avoid flooding and landslides - roadside souvenir stands in the middle of nowhere - city streets packed with bustling traffic - banana farms - mountains - and even stray animals of all kinds. The photos I'm most excited about, though, are the ones which I think capture the emotion of the people and the 'human condition'. The way they exist and interact with one another and tourists was just so foreign to me and is what I enjoyed photographing most.
One day I took a guided land and sea tour around the island. There was one small fishing village called Anse La Raye where the jeep stopped and we were able to get out and walk around. I left the group and wandered off on my own. Down the street I came across a man named John who told me he was the grounds keeper of the local church and invited me to follow him around - to the church, his fishing boat (more like a canoe) and his home. It was incredible and of course, as is custom in these areas, I tipped him as a thank you for his time.
This seemed to be a recurring theme throughout these "pit stops" in the small cities and villages - locals are quick to approach and offer help or goods for purchase. Usually they were really friendly, but the odd time I was approached by some pretty sketchy characters, so the need to be smart and aware was definitely there. It wasn't uncommon to see a man walking down the street carrying a machete - although this was the one thing I was never able to get a clear shot of.
If you're like me, when you look at the collection of photos above they're definitely not what you expected to see when you heard the name St. Lucia. Reason being, tourism is the number one export in this country - and to most people these rundown roadways and villages wouldn't be condusive to a paradise island nicknamed "The Helen of the West Indies" (after the famous beauty of Troy). Although I prefer to visit the small villages, most would prefer to stay in a secluded resort. The resort I stayed in is a far cry from you've seen above, definitely "sells" better and ultimately made the perfect location to have a wedding. Below would be the images you'd expext to find in a St. Lucia travel brochure.
In summary, the island truly is beautiful in many ways both geographically and culturally, but it has it's surprises. Not all of them good, not all of them bad, just a healthy mix of both which is fine in my books... it was a photographer's playground.
All images, videos, text copyright © Matt Vardy, all rights reserved.