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Twenty-Two: snowboarding and the shadow self

It’s 2004. Twenty-two year old elite snowboarder, Hamish Duncan is competing at an event in Val d’Isere, France. All is going well until the morning of the final. He miss hits the jump and falls the equivalent of three storeys on to a flat, icy surface, burst fracturing  vertebrae in his lower back. A moment that changes his life forever.

Thirteen years later, Hamish’s photobook Twenty-Two – in support of CALM  – presents images that reflect his recovery process, internal and external. We sat down with Hamish to learn how he made sense of his story through photography.

 

Bolts and rods a 19th century technique still used today.

 

How did you get into snowboarding?

At the age of 13, like any teenager, my head was all over the place. I’m not a naturally academic person, so the moment my friend Max sold me a skateboard it meant hours of skate videos and self-development through practice and failure. Go back. Start again. Repeat. It was also a solid way to ease frustration. I felt pain, understood passion and purpose to progress. Snowboarding followed shortly after. I nearly gave up after a year of at the dry slope in Welwyn Garden City, but before I did, I hit a jump. That was it, I was totally hooked. Every Wednesday and Sunday at Hemel Hempstead, making new friends, a great group of random people who were all just in to it. As I spent more time in the mountains, it allowed me to experience and appreciate nature. All the senses, a time where you can fully switch off from any other thoughts, personal expression, positive aggression (slash that bank, hit that burm, grind that rail). It just fitted with my character.

Hours of skate videos, self-development through practice and failure. Go back. Start again. Repeat. It was also a solid way to ease frustration, I felt pain, understood passion and purpose to progress.

 

Do you feel extreme sports are masculine endeavours?
No way. When my friend Jenny Jones won the bronze medal at Sochi in 2014, I cried so hard. It was a not just a moment of adoration for Jenny but for winter sports in the UK as a whole. Because of what it would do to inspire so many more women to get involved. The future of the sport is female, not just in snowboarding but all sports. The problem with many activities like this is people miss the point, especially at an amateur level. The aggression, the ‘afters’. For many it’s not play, it’s a stress relief. It’s a real turn off for many people and has to be addressed as a wider conversation.

A loss of identity is the only way I can explain it. It was my whole world, every part of my make up, social group, passion, play, hobby, career. I blanked it out. One day I took all the magazines I had, any kit that was around the house and I burnt it all.

How did you feel after the fall? Physically and emotionally?
Well physically I was a mess. I lost a great deal of weight, all the muscle fades so much faster than you expect. I quickly went from my strongest form to my weakest. It crushes you. But walking again and seeing my parents faces after thinking I would lose the ability was incomprehensible. Emotionally it was incredibly hard. Our thoughts are our experiences and for a long time they were very negative. They took me to dark places and on many occasions I felt like the mist would never give way to any clear light or positivity in my life. A deep sadness, blaming myself and overanalysing everything.

How did it feel to stop snowboarding?
A loss of identity is the only way I can explain it. It was my whole world, every part of my make up, social group, passion, play, hobby, career. I blanked it out. One day I took all the magazines I had, any kit that was around the house and I burnt it all. I took it really badly. To look back now is a little frightening, but I’m so lucky that the people I know and love from this time have stayed in my life and kept me in the loop. Roughly six years ago I went to Morzine and did a season, I even hit a big jump for the first time. I was so terrified I asked my friend Mark to tow me in to the jump. It felt amazing, I cried all the way home. In fact, nearly every time I go snowboarding now I cry on the chairlift. It feels great!

 

Has creativity helped you make sense of yourself?
Yes, so much of our thoughts and experiences are impossible to translate. Images have always interested me but to express them is very difficult. For a long time I’d pontificate too much, but it’s the regularity of the action that improves the craft. The more I take photos, the happier I am with the result. In this way it’s an incredible release, my thought is now out in an image. It’s real, to be viewed, liked and commented on. I love Instagram for this, you can have a gallery of your own that you curate and update on a daily basis. I’ll often delete the app after posting if I’m in a vulnerable place, so that I don’t use it as a tool for my own self-worth. At it’s heart it really is a creative outlet. That said, a highly addictive one! Watch out kids.

Nearly every time I go snowboarding now I cry on the chairlift. It feels great!

Did you know much about PTSD before your diagnosis? Have you learnt much since?
Before my diagnosis it was just an expression used to talk about soldiers coming home from war. I was in a club in London with my girlfriend at the time and a sound came over the speakers that triggered a hyper-vigilance that sent my back in to a spasm, the walls folded in and I was an absolute mess. I panicked, tears were streaming down my face and I ran out. It was incredibly scary. At the time I thought it might have been a spiked drink or just a freak incident, but it repeated again when I was at a festival of light in Ahmedabad, India. Ironic! I just melted into the ground and people all around me were trying to help, they must have thought who is this westerner in tears on his knees? I can laugh about it now but at the time it was not good. Through therapy, meditation and yoga it has helped to relieve the anxiety and I haven’t had an attack in a while, but the PTSD still exists and in many ways it always will.

 

How did you land on photography as your medium of choice?
Well, in a weird way it landed on me! A good mate and talented photographer, Danny Burrows, said that there was a secondhand Leica M8 in a store in London that I’d like. I didn’t have much money and these cameras are expensive (and beautiful). So I went and had a look but had no plans to invest in one. The shop was selling it for a customer, it was on for a lot of cash and I just offered them all the money I had, which was way below the asking price and just got lucky. The owner accepted my offer and that was it. Boom.

Over what period were these photos taken?

The photos have been taken over the past two years roughly. I’ve been very lucky to travel with my work and the camera is the perfect book end to the day. I rise early anyway, do my yoga, my meditation and head out to catch the early light. After the work day is done, I get out and capture dusk. It couldn’t be a better excuse to get out of an office chair and go outside to explore, find nowhere places and practice at a great time of day. It’s not called the magic hour for nothing!

Shadows are a recurring theme: why are they so interesting to you?

In the hope that this doesn’t sound too whimsical, shadows are transient and have an impermanent nature to them: they will pass. As will the negative qualities that dwell in our minds. So from a place of darkness, it helps one to understand how to transform. Through photography, we can acknowledge that shadows exist but only for that moment in time. A reminder to be present.

Shadows are transient and have an impermanent nature to them: they will pass. As will the negative qualities that dwell in our minds.

You lost your friend, pro-snowboarder Nelson Pratt to suicide which must have been very painful for you and your friends and community. What advice would you have to men who are struggling?
It was. I recall the day Marcus Chapman called and it took a long time to accept that this wasn’t a selfish act. It was because Nelson was a sensitive person and he was going through so much pain. I had to forgive him. This world needs the sensitive ones. It needs more of the people who understand the struggle, not less.  Advice? For you and the people who love you, mend your broken heart, there are people who understand you and have the dialect to communicate on your level. Trust in people, this difficult time will pass. Open your heart.

Help make Hamish’s photobook happen by funding his Kickstarter >

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