Richard Branson’s Island Paradise

July 8th, 2015
3033 Bali High 04

Bali High

The trip to Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands starts off with some very difficult obstacles. As the photographer with an assignment from Architectural Digest Magazine to shoot Sir Richard Branson’s private island, I’m faced with the responsibility of getting myself, my crew and all my gear to the site. This was in the day before digital photography when shooting on film required more equipment than today

3033-08 Necker Isl  Photo by Dan Forer

First of all, there’s no landing strip at Necker; it can only be reached by boat. Second, the island to which you do fly has, to say the least, a rather short runway. Did I mention the mountain at the end of it? No?

Well, it’s there and that means that only certain aircraft fly in; smaller aircraft can, with less room for cargo. And all this means that I’ve got to keep my equipment needs under control; minimize them so that I’ll be accommodated on the airline I choose.

Once I’ve figured all this out, the trip goes as follows:

I, my assistants and my stylist and all my gear fly out of Miami to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, the one with the mountain at the end of the runway. There I’ve contracted a smaller, twin-engine propeller-type aircraft into which I transfer us and our gear. Now it’s a short hop to the British Virgin Island of Tortola. Not really Tortolla but tiny Beef Island which abuts Tortolla’s east end. Land there and unload the stuff into a VW van and a cart. The van drives and we push the cart several hundred yards to a nearby dock where our last transport is waiting, an open 40 ft. fishing boat. After once again transferring the gear onto the stern of that boast, it’s off across the turquoise waters of Sir Francis Drake Channel and on to 74 acre Necker Island. It’s situated a few miles off the shore of Virgin Gorda, which is visible on the horizon.

3033-07 Necker Isl  Photo by Dan Forer

Once docked at Necker Island, we unload the boat and lug the gear (did I mention it’s 16 cases plus personal luggage) up a challenging set of stairs to the platform of the thatch-roofed main house. I and my tired crew have reached Sir Richard Branson’s island paradise.

3033-04 Necker Isl  Photo by Dan Forer

But I’ve been here before. Actually several months before the trip above I travelled to Necker to familiarize myself with the place and to meet and photograph Sir Richard for the upcoming story. The visit was his idea and he covered our expenses for that trip. I traveled with my assistant and we were put up in one of Necker Island’s most beautiful structures, a tall pagoda-styled building overlooking the sea called Bali High (remember Bloody Mary singing about it in “South Pacific”?).

3033-08 Necker Isl  Photo by Dan Forer

What a wonderful few days that was. Much of it was spent exploring the island through a network of trails, which led to its eastern tip. There the constant trade winds blow so hard that the sea birds hung aloft above our heads with their wings absolutely still maintaining lift solely from the power of that unceasing wind. We were encouraged to experience it as the birds did. We stood, feet apart and still, leaning into it, trusting that it wouldn’t let us down. I mean “down” literally since we were on a cliff-top with nothing but the sea at our feet some fifty feet below. We did, and it didn’t fail us.

3033-14 Necker Isl  Photo by Dan Forer
Back at the main house (the large thatched roofed structure), Sir Richard was taking a holiday break with his wife and kids. The kids had been encouraged to invite some of their friends from back in England and the whole, raucous assemblage were entertaining themselves with all the water sports the island had to offer. My assistant and I were simply one of the crowd and were made to feel entirely at home in Sir Richard’s world.

3033-16 Necker Isl  Photo by Dan Forer

 

I was directed in my assignment to get a shot of Sir Richard somewhere on the island and I found the perfect place near a hammock hung between two wood columns on a balcony overlooking the sea with the mountainous profile of Virgin Gorda in the distance. It was a quick setup without the inconvenience of needing extra lighting (which I hadn’t brought anyway). With Sir Richard and his two kids posed naturally and comfortably in and around the hammock, I snapped a few frames and it was over. They needed no encouragement from me to look absolutely happy with where they were and what they were doing. A very happy family snapshot!

Richard Branson & Kids at Necker

Once that was done, Sir Richard, acceding to his kids’ request, asked if I would shoot them and their mates all piled around the hammock for a personal souvenir. Of course I did that shot for them. Some months later I received a personal note from him thanking me for that extra effort. From my experience of those few days, I’ve thought of Richard Branson as one of the most welcoming, down-to-earth people I’ve met on assignment.

3033 Hammock Photo by Dan Forer

The next day while I continued working on my future shot list, the families of all Sir Richard’s Necker employees were ferried over from Virgin Gorda to join the Bransons for a day of fun in the pool and on the beaches with a picnic thrown in. Branson himself was in the pool giving swimming lessons to a bunch of his employee’s kids.

3033-06 Necker Isl  Photo by Dan Forer

 

Back to the actual shoot trip; we waited until that summer’s hurricane season had passed and returned with all our gear for the principal photography. But Necker had paid a price that summer. We found the island had been hit in July by Bertha, one of that Summer’s hurricanes. I had to design my shots to avoid areas where repair was taking place such as the roof which was being re-thatched. Along the shoreline, the leaves of trees that had been attacked by the storm tide had mostly turned brown or had fallen off entirely.

3033 Bali High 06 Photo by Dan Forer

 

The rest of the shoot, however, went off without a hitch. I especially remember Loretta, my wife and the stylist for the shoot, patiently setting the dinner scene with perfect napkin folds for each of the twenty-one place settings. Every accessory, every floral element, every object that makes each shot look natural; these she controlled. The stylist is the unsung hero of the shoot whose imagination paints the perfect picture that we see.

 

3033-09 Necker Isl  Photo by Dan Forer

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