Though its capital was leveled by a volcano and more than half of the island is now in the “exclusion zone,” this British territory remains home to a vibrant community.
Several years ago, a close friend of mine, the photographer Allan Macintyre, went with a group of scientists to explore Montserrat’s former capital, Plymouth. I was struck by his black-and-white pictures of half-buried buildings. He told me there wasn’t a lot of color there because everything is covered in volcanic ash. But I really wanted to see for myself what a submerged town looked like. And also, I wanted to see how nature had filled the void.
To get around, I enlisted the help of a man named James Daley, who goes by Scriber and is a tracker for the exclusion zone. A mature jungle is quite easy to walk through, but new undergrowth is very, very dense. Daley had to cut a path with a machete in places where there had been roads. There were also Jack Spaniard wasps, which are very aggressive and nasty, living under the leaves. Daley had to look out for them and spray them; he was stung, and my assistant was as well. We went to a village in the hills above Plymouth that had also been completely abandoned; it took us about an hour to go one mile.
I shot some pictures from a helicopter, which offered extraordinary views, because you can see Plymouth and the volcano in the background. But on foot, you could actually see houseplants that had grown 20 feet tall and shot up through a roof.
The director of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, Roderick Stewart, is a volcanologist and a keen photographer himself. He was impressed that I was shooting with a four-by-five, a large-format camera. He took me along on a trip to one of the M.V.O. monitoring stations, at Roche’s Yard, as well as to Amersham, outside Plymouth, an area that is not yet open to tourists and to which he hadn’t been since 1997. I actually want to go back to Montserrat soon because I think that this island is going to become more and more of a destination.