Weathering the storm
Growing up on the east coast of England, photographer and filmmaker Chris McClean could hear the waves crashing on the shoreline from his bedroom window. After training as a graphic designer and a move to Amsterdam, he then made a surfing film that went viral. Ever since, the sea has continued to feature prominently in a body of work that has beautifully captured everything from desert dunes and rainswept Welsh hills to the volcanic black sands of Iceland’s interior and campouts in the Peak District.
But the call of the ocean remains the loudest and was answered when Chris accepted an invitation to accompany a surfing trip along the North Carolina coast. What started out as an idyllic road adventure took an unexpected detour when the crew broke off from their journey to help the cleanup operation in hurricane-hit Ocracoke.
Returning home with memories of local residents stoically rebuilding their lives in the wake of a devastating storm, several months later Chris now finds himself emerging from lockdown and facing his own uncertain future.
Recounting his experience in North Carolina and, more recently, the process of documenting his enforced stay at home, Chris considers life’s simple pleasures that can so easily be overlooked, whether adversity can be a mechanism for growth and the kind of world we’ll discover when we all start moving again.
What was the background to this surfing trip?
I'd met Robin previously in Scotland at Grinduro. He'd seen one of my other surfing trips on Instagram, and we were chatting about how we’d prepped the bikes—trailers versus racks and such. Then a year later, I got an invite to join him in North Carolina.
So you assembled a crew?
One of Robin's friends, Gary, joined us together with Bri who’s a local surfer to North Carolina. But as a group, we’d never met or ridden together before this trip.
You wouldn't have guessed that from your photographs.
Bri, in particular, was very photogenic and easygoing. And Gary could talk motorbike mechanics or waves in Baja with ease. But I find that's generally the case with Americans; they're usually fun to hang with, and the conversation is free flowing. Throughout the whole trip, we joked about the southern hospitality we received. People would open their doors and we'd camp in their backyards and join them for beers.
Those were interesting bikes. How did they ride because they looked pretty well loaded?
A company called Fatback Bikes based out of Alaska sent them down. They were quite heavy so if one of them went to topple over, there wasn't much you could do to stop it [laughs]. But they were comfortable to ride, and we'd pump up the tires if we had a stretch of road and deflate them again for the sand. But you definitely weren't going anywhere fast.
You were moving down the coastline?
We met near Virginia Beach and rode south. Through False Cape State Park and across the border into North Carolina. Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills down to Pea Island National Wildlife Park - we got really fun waves there - and into Avon and Cape Hatteras. Then Ocracoke, Cedar Island, Harkers Island and Cape Lookout on our last day.
That’s a lot of names to remember [laughs].
Being on the move, most of the days were different, but we had our evening routine: set up camp and surf or swim before cooking dinner over little stoves as we watched the sun go down.
Is that a type of riding you enjoy?
Because I was taking photographs of the trip, at times I was almost wanting to go slower. Which is why those bikes worked so well.
And the surfing?
Traveling with the boards was a little cumbersome. You don't get the best of the surf and you don't get the best of the riding. But by combining the two, you do get a really fun adventure.
The sea and surf both feature heavily in your work.
That was never intentional. But the house I grew up in, I could hear the sea from my bedroom window. So it's always been a part of me, and when I eventually moved away, I had this sense that something was missing. Like I didn't feel as comfortable.
When did you first start surfing?
I started in my mid-teens, and it just connected with me. I can't think of a better way of making a living than spending your time in and around the ocean. And everything I do, it draws me back, time and time again. Even if it's a cycling shoot, I end up carrying a surfboard [laughs].
So how did the North Carolina trip unfold?
The route had been planned a month before we all met up in Virginia. But on our first night together, Robin mentioned that we might need to make some changes because of the hurricane that had made landfall a couple of weeks previously.
And you surfed as you made your way down the coast?
If we had waves we stopped and surfed. If not, we put in a good day's ride. And then, as we got further south, we were told about the clean-up operation taking place in Ocracoke, one of the islands we had planned to pass through. Robin mentioned this in a message to his Dad who, in turn, had a word with one of the church groups providing relief aid to ask if we could volunteer. We became known as the Methodist boys.
Yes. And girl [laughs].
So what kind of work were you doing?
I didn't realize but because the flood water is so dirty, there's a real problem with black mold contaminating the houses. We were stripping the houses not only of damaged household items but also the floorboards and wooden walls. Everything up to where the water had reached had to be thrown away.
You took some incredibly poignant images of the local residents. Is that difficult considering their lives were in such disarray?
I can't remember who said it, but there's this theory that you shoot first and ask questions later. But if possible, I always try to ask even with the nod of the head or a smile. I've not worked extensively in the US, but I do find most Americans are quite open to having their picture taken. Even if their house is being torn to bits. And I tend to over-worry this aspect of my job because I'd never want to cause offense.
What were your personal thoughts on seeing a community so broken?
The closer we got to Ocracoke, the bigger the piles of rubbish waiting on the roadside to be collected. So the extent of the damage was really quite shocking. Especially when you see personal belongings like framed photographs and children's toys that are so water damaged they are being discarded.
And then, I guess, it was time to leave and pick up your original plan?
The morning that we packed up our bikes, we had breakfast with all the volunteers before saying goodbye to everyone. We’d built a bond so quickly and wanted to stay longer. It’s like you can't help enough, and the rest of the ride was a little bittersweet considering what we'd seen.
That must be a perfectly natural reaction?
The day we left was the longest day we spent on our bikes, so we had plenty of time to contemplate. And we’d also grown closer in terms of our little group on the road. What we'd experienced proved, in a sense, to be bigger than the original idea for the trip.
And now that you're back in the UK, I've been viewing your daily Instagram stories that you've posted during the Covid-19 lockdown. Although this hasn't resulted in the same physical damage that the North Carolina coast suffered when the hurricane struck, it's nevertheless been another storm that we've all had to weather to different degrees.
I had a lot of travel plans for work but they all came to a total halt. And then we entered lockdown and with my two young boys not being able to go to school, it was fun spending so much time with them at home—a really big adventure in its own sense with us doing more in those first weeks around our local area than we'd done in the previous couple of years. Finding all these undiscovered spots to explore by bike and with living close to the beach, we just tried to have as much socially isolated fun as possible.
Which you documented so beautifully with your Instagram stories.
It was a fun project and one way to keep connected to family and friends online. With kids, there’s always something to document, and we had a couple of street parties that proved to be wonderful moments. But our bubble burst when Jesse went back to school. The realization that life might never return to how it was and whether we’ll be able to adapt? Lots of unanswered questions.
Do you feel adversity always has negative connotations?
We have our concerns - mainly to do with the financial impact of the lockdown - but overall the experience for us as a family has been positive. We're very fortunate to live in such an interesting place with easy access to open spaces: the beach and local trails, a wildflower meadow a few minutes walk from my house that I never knew existed. And we've come to realize that there's so much on our doorstep that we’ve been overlooking. So no, not always negative. If you surround yourself with good people and focus on the positives, adversity can bring out the best in life.
You continued to take photographs and make videos during lockdown, but this wasn't commissioned work?
I suppose it was a visual reaction to our situation, documenting our response to the restrictions. Probably to those viewing it, really rather mundane. But, for us, it was the most interesting thing that had happened each day [laughs].
You might think it's mundane, but I feel it's very powerful. So many of us had similar experiences that your posts resonate. And I was wondering whether it's made you reassess your life in any way?
I'd already been thinking about doing more work closer to home, even before the current restrictions on travel, so I'm around more for the kids and don't miss them growing up. But it's also made me look at the type of work I do. Pretty surf films are all well and good, but maybe they need balancing against something a bit more meaningful?
The images you took on Ocracoke during the clean-up operation were bookended with shots of blue skies and your friends in the surf. Possibly a metaphor for the promise of more positive times to come?
I’ve heard people mention how they've been able to hear the birds. That the noise of modern living has quietened during lockdown. So hopefully we can embrace these aspects of our environment that maybe we've taken for granted. It’s almost as if nature has sent us a message as we begin to move forward. Asking whether we can make these elements of lockdown the new normal?