Nadia Huggins: after the leap

Through her photographs of young boys playing in and around the sea, Vincentian Nadia Huggins captures moments of daring and transformation, and explores “the present moment.” Melanie Archer introduces a portfolio of images

Circa No Future No. 8 (2014). Photography by Nadia HugginsUntitled (2014). Photography by Nadia HugginsUrchin Triangle (2014), by Vincentian photographer Nadia Huggins. Photography by Nadia HugginsCirca No Future No. 10 (2014). Photography by Nadia HugginsBuoy (2015). Photography by Nadia HugginsNato’s Boat 1 (2014). Photography by Nadia HugginsHuggins’s underwater gear. Photography by Nadia HugginsQuicsilver (2015). Photography by Nadia HugginsUrchin Skeleton (2014). Photography by Nadia HugginsSargassum (2015). Photography by Nadia HugginsSelf-Portrait Swimming Back to the Shore (2014). Photography by Nadia Huggins

It’s a dramatic landscape, in which there are the expected elements: the translucent blue and white of sea and sand, the strong forms of islands near, and hints of others in the distance. But here, in St Vincent’s Indian Bay, there is also the unexpected: two small rocky islets, their craggy faces rising out of the ocean; on one of these a cross sits, iconic in its blocky white form. On late afternoons, local boys come down to the beach and swim out to these rocks. In feats executed to display prowess, to observers and to themselves, they scamper up to the top, diving and leaping off repeatedly, before swimming out to small boats anchored nearby.

Photographer Nadia Huggins grew up a short walk from this beach. She learned to swim here, and spent much of her adolescence climbing the rocks and jumping off with the boys. She was accepted as part of their group, but drifted away during her early twenties, as she joined the workforce. During that time her latent interest in photography grew. Huggins bought a camera in 2003 and started teaching herself.

She has since developed a body of work that includes documentary and conceptual images — portraits of people and moments and places that capture Caribbean life in a way makes the everyday extraordinary. She turns the lens on herself, too. “For me, it’s always been an opportunity to perform,” she says of these self-portraits. “I’m generally shy and introverted, but I can assert a different part of me through the image, this thing that I don’t think I am — but suddenly the camera turns, and I am that.” Huggins has participated in a dozen exhibitions in the Caribbean and internationally — most recently the show In Another Place and Here at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in Canada, earlier in 2015.

After working for four years in St Lucia — during which time she co-founded ARC, a magazine focused on contemporary Caribbean art — Huggins returned to St Vincent at the end of 2013. Seeking a place where she could have peace of mind, she found herself drawn back to Indian Bay, and observing the boys swimming and jumping. This time she was considering the boys from a different angle, and also with a sense of nostalgia. “I started looking at a lot of young boys on the street, not really doing anything, and all of the issues that relate to that, and trying to figure out a way to address those things through images, but not wanting to focus on the negative and perpetuate a stereotype,” she says in her typically gentle manner. “It was interesting seeing these boys interact in this space [Indian Bay] separate to everything else, and their vulnerability, and wanting to capture that somehow.”

In 2014, Huggins started shooting what has today become her Circa No Future series — portraits of the Indian Bay boys she has taken in and out of the water. Like much of her work, these photographs are characterised by a keen observational eye, a mastery of composition that heightens the drama of a moment, and atmospheric tones that hint always at an extra layer — something present but not quite said. Within this series, the boys stand iconic on the rocks, they are captured from under the surface as their watery forms climb the faces, or as they leap overhead at impossible angles. Their sinewy bodies appear frozen in motion under the water. According to Huggins, the name of the series “is a direct reference to the concept of time — it is an exploration of the present moment. The idea of the present moment is meant to be ambiguous.” She has been particularly interested in capturing what happens when the boys are underwater, immediately after a jump. “At that moment, you can’t think about things,” she says. “That fear before jumping all disappears in a sense, there’s a transformation that happens.”

Parallel to the boys confronting their fears, Huggins has been setting her own challenges to overcome in the water, and pushing herself beyond what is comfortable. To date, she has shot some eight thousand images in and around the water at Indian Bay. Apart from the boys, she has photographed various objects, isolated them for their interesting textures, colours, and shapes — whether the geometric forms of sea urchins amid curls of underwater flora, or the rough yellow and red texture of a boat against a brilliant sky. “Shooting [of this series] is more or less done,” she says. “I have to go through the editing process, but that’s where things start to come alive, and I get to consider materiality, and finding right placements, and how I will print and show it . . . Bits and pieces of the work are online and on Instagram,” she notes, “and people are connecting to it, but there’s another layer of connection that can happen. When I find what that is, the series will be complete, and I’ll move on to something else.”

In June 2015, Huggins spent a month at a residency in Vermont, a time she earmarked for editing, with a goal towards a year-end solo exhibition in Trinidad, where she is currently based. Although she doesn’t shoot as much underwater work outside of St Vincent, she remains closely connected to the ocean wherever she goes, finding in it a place of calm and equality where gender, race, and class aren’t relevant. “In the water, you don’t have to assume any of those constructs, everyone is stripped down of all that,” she says. “It’s so far removed from everything we understand about ourselves on land.”