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Friendship, family and surfing with Peter Flude

This article contains image descriptions in the captions to help those with visual impairments.

© Peter Flude ID: Alex floats with his head half submerged in the ocean. His gaze is looking out of the frame.

The 2020 lockdown in the UK meant a lot of us were separated from our loved ones. But for some, we were flung closer to our family members. Photographer Peter Flude spent the second lockdown with his cousin Alex, who had just qualified as a paramedic working on the front line of the pandemic. Taking what free time they could when Alex wasn’t working, the pair decided to surf the cool waves along the south coast of England. The result is a series of beautiful and intimate portraits of Alex enjoying the water and his cousins company. We caught up recently with Flude to discuss that strange time and male bonds.

Hey Peter, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I’d love to know how the idea to use the beach and water as a place to connect and enjoy the company of your cousin?

Thank you, great to talk to you! For me and Alex, water has always been a place of connection, so it was less of a conscious choice and more so a continuation of something fundamental which has always bonded us. We’re both part Swedish on our mothers’ sides of the family, so spent a lot of our childhood, teenage, and young adult years visiting Sweden together. Weeks spent around Swedish lakes were probably some of our first significant experiences of spending time together in and around the water. We both have nostalgic memories of swimming, canoeing and fishing together out in the Swedish countryside. So the water has always been a very formative place for our relationship.

© Peter Flude ID: Alex on a surfboard going over a wave in the background with froffy ocean water in the foreground.
© Peter Flude ID: Alex smiling in the white waves of the ocean. Behind him a pebbled beach and houses.
© Peter Flude ID: Legs in the air as the rest of the body plunges into the water in the centre of the image. Splashes of water surround the man.

What was life like for you in lockdown knowing you had that one hour of exercise surfing with your cousin?

I didn’t actually see Alex for the first lockdown. He qualified as a paramedic in the spring of 2020 and was immediately thrust into working on the front line, isolating from most of the family as he came into contact with COVID patients on a daily basis. In September while things were eased temporarily, Alex moved into the spare room of my family home in Chichester, where I was living with my Mum and Sister. We started taking trips to the local beaches to swim and surf on his days off. Our trips were always spontaneous as Alex would often have to isolate from the rest of the house if he came into direct contact with COVID patients at work. But during the periods of time when he didn’t, we took full advantage of the freedom we had together. As well as surfing we went on outdoor adventures as often as possible, from walks around the park to full-day hikes. Then the November lockdown hit and those freedoms were reduced again dramatically. We all felt more isolated from our friends and the rest of our families, and work became more difficult for Alex. Our surfing trips became our allocated exercise, which I think we both used to destress and just feel freedom again for an hour every day.

How long have you been photographing your cousin? 

Since I first started taking photos in 2013! So around 8 years. I don’t know whether I’d call him my first creative muse or just the first person who allowed me to photograph them! When I was 16 the thought of photographing anyone I didn’t know personally was terrifying, so I think I gravitated towards photographing Alex and channeling my creative ideas through him.

© Peter Flude ID: Alex in a wetsuit holds his hand on top of his head with a grimacing look on his face. he is in the ocean and water is spraying up all around him.
© Peter Flude ID: A Smiling Alex with his arms across his red surfboard in the ocean. The shore is pebbled with houses on the embankment.

Close male bonds in a sensitive way represented within photography are far and few between. How important was it for you to show a straight relationship with another man in such a sensitive and comfortable way?

I think that kind of relationship is important to represent in the same way that it’s important to me on a personal level, and the sensitivity comes from my closeness to the person I’m representing. After photographing someone for that length of time you break down barriers that might have previously influenced the sensitivity or honesty of how that person might present themselves to the camera, so it’s not something I consciously think about too much anymore. Though I would try to avoid hyper-masculine stereotypes because they just wouldn’t be truthful.

The time in the water looks like such an important time for both of you, looking back at the weird time that was 2020. What are your thoughts of the time you were able to spend together?

Having Alex move in felt like living with a best friend at a time when I had been isolated from most of my friends for so long. It was a time where each of us was dealing with our own individual stresses, as well as some shared ones. The time we spent together outdoors was a time where we could forget about most of those stresses. Being in the water was like existing in a reality outside of those things.

© Peter Flude ID: A portrait of Alex in the sunshine with only his head and shoulders showing.
© Peter Flude ID: Alex is standing amongst red flowers. He is topless with a summer glow across his body.

Is promoting a healthy and close heterosexual male relationship something that’s important to you outside of photography?

Definitely, my close male friendships are some of the most important and emotionally supportive connections I have in my life. I think it’s important for men to have relationships that allow expression of individual masculinity in a healthy and non-toxic way, but also allow space for emotional vulnerability and openness.

© Peter Flude ID: A topless Alex sits on a rock in a field. His left hand scratching his head. He is wearing black shorts.

Alex comes up a lot in your photography. What draws you to wanting to document him?

Alex and I are really similar in a lot of ways and I think those similarities possibly drive a lot of my interest in wanting to photograph him. He’s two years younger than me and I’ve always found it interesting watching him grow up and go through the life experiences I went through just before him. I pretty much see Alex as my brother, which is a connection I don’t have with anyone else, and that familial bond drives a lot of my motivation to photograph him.