Lady in her home, Bahamas. ©Ken Griffiths
We decided to drive down to the water’s edge. A liberating, carefree escapade. Lured by thoughts of a white sand beach, edged with palm trees, and the Caribbean lapping seductively at its fringes, Chris steered our monster of a jeep down the short track.
Except that it was long after midnight.
Our organiser and driver, Chris Abel was the account man. He was also an unstoppable, go-getting force of nature, full of boyish swagger. We were on a photographic shoot for a press campaign for our client, the Bahamas Tourist Office. Martin Galton was the art director, I was copywriting the stories and Ken Griffiths was taking the pictures, assisted by Giovanni Diffidenti.
A few weeks previously, Martin, Chris and I had been on a ‘fam trip’, organised by Sir Lynden Pindling’s government, to get to know his country: twenty five days of four-seater planes, luxury hotels, exotic feasts and debilitating cocktails. A louche crowd of European agency and PR types, some ad people from Charlotte, North Carolina and a hilarious product placement duo from Hollywood, we were run through a tight schedule of 5am starts and (slightly looser) finishes, usually swaying near a swimming pool surrounded by empty glasses. We saw more of the islands than most Bahamians see in a lifetime. The hoteliers treated us royally. Hard work it was not.
Now we were back for ten days with Ken, a justly celebrated and brilliant photographer. This was a first night off in a week.
The four-by-four jeep radiated bulky confidence. Dirty, rusty brown, it roared and snorted as we bounced towards the beach. The Eleutheran night cloaked us in thick, humid comfort. I’m not sure if we had Ken’s priceless Gandolfi camera on board, but we certainly had some gear besides myself and Chris. The photography team and Martin had retired, sensibly, to bed. We’d drunk our own bodyweight in Kalik beer and whatever rum we found flowing through the small settlement of Governor’s Harbour.
Just as we reached the beach, there was a loud, percussive ‘kerrunnnkk’. Our wave of alcohol-fuelled positivity – and Chris’s extraordinary forward momentum – came to a immediate halt. The truck stopped. It wouldn’t move. We sank several inches into the sand while the engine whined. Chris swore a lot. We jumped out.
The big-wheeled wolf of a jeep turned out to possess far more of a sheep-like engine than its looks suggested. The axle had sunk into a pothole, settling into the soft, dusty sand and now the thing refused to budge. Suddenly the lapping waves sounded like an ominously advancing tide. Desperate to reverse the vehicle, we rocked it to and fro on hastily gathered drift wood splints, but it simply sank further with our feeble efforts. The engine whinnied on pathetically, with no horse power to go backwards.
We were drunk, in charge of government property, on a beach where we shouldn’t have been driving, without insurance. A world-class photographer was depending on us getting him to the right spot the following day. The tide appeared to be coming in. A joy-riding write-off of thousands of dollars of equipment wasn’t exactly going to play well with our London bosses. Those smart Bahamian police might show up at any point and throw us in jail. Not that unlikely a prospect, given how little else there seemed to be for them to do.
Panic, paranoia and palpitations set in, mixed with extreme tiredness as elation gave way to sick dread. Eventually, having scrabbled at the sand with our bare hands, broken finger nails, fallen palm fronds and anything we could throw under the wheels for approaching an hour, we wandered back to our simple hotel, about a five minute walk away and slept. I dreamt of the tide engulfing the vehicle and all the equipment being washed away.
About two hours later, as dawn broke, we woke up Giovanni and explained what had happened. Calmly and without surprise, he walked down to beach with us. The first relief was that the tide had been minimal and the jeep was still dry, twenty feet from the sea. The Italian solved the problem in seconds flat. “Let’s try driving forwards,” he suggested and took the wheel. While Chris and I gave a simple push from the back, he did just that. It had never occurred to us to try it the night before. The jeep bucked up onto the freshly wet sand. The tyres dug in and held. Giovanni drove off, through the shallow water at the shore, back on to the road and on we went to a day of photography in bright, sparkling light.
The campaign, such as it was, became four press ads. Sir Lynden Pindling, the Bahamian prime minister, came under more and more scrutiny as his personal wealth grew, seemingly without explanation. Amongst allegations of backhanders from Colombian drug lords, there was a strong suggestion that the advertising campaign had been conveniently been put together as a “tax dodge”or, possibly, to throw the opposition parties off the scent of corruption. It was never properly explained. Soon after, Sir Lynden was removed from office, despite the affection of many Bahamians. The account quietly slipped away from BBH.
Giovanni graduated from working as Ken Griffith’s assistant, going on to become a brilliant war photographer. His images from countries affected by conflict are seering but always human.
Martin and I continued to see Ken back in London, as his editorial work continued, particularly with The Observer. The trademark, Antipodean tones never left him. He died of motor neurone disease aged 69 in 2014 after a difficult few years. His work still packs a cinematic punch, vivid portraits not just of people, but places and a particular epoch. The shot at the top of this piece was captured in a little house in a short interlude, during our time there; the one below is from his dignified study of the homeless in London, entitled Dossers.
Ken Griffiths with friends, Lincoln’s Inn Fields ©Ken Griffiths