Christopher Wahl is a photographer based in Toronto. His work is part of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s permanent collection.
I’m sure you’ve heard: Meghan Markle, Prince Harry and their son Archie have moved to Vancouver Island. They are “just renting” for now, but the plan seems to be to spend their near future in North America. They’ve decided to ease back on their royal duties so that they can be actual parents to their son as he’s growing up. Sounds like they’re trying to be normal people. I can’t say I blame them.
As a news photographer, I have been in the photo pool for many official royal visits to Canada. I was at the Invictus Games – at a wheelchair tennis event at Nathan Phillips Square – when Harry first introduced Meghan to the world (2017). I photographed William and Kate sitting uncomfortably behind a huge polar bear rug in Yellowknife (2011). I copped a charter flight home on the same plane as Prince Charles from Yellowknife to Toronto (2007). I’ve even photographed the Queen with her eyes closed (2002).
Most of these ceremonial events are heavily orchestrated and choreographed for accredited media to witness and document with their cameras. They are the epitome of Photo Ops. Making images that are interesting enough to be worth sharing from these events is actually very difficult. We owe a round of applause to the photographers covering these things for being able to pull that off.
Don’t get me wrong. When I’m at those same events, I consider it important work, my own contribution to the larger archive of the people and stories of this country. I’m a newsman, a portrait photographer by trade, so when dignitaries or other notable folks step onto Canadian soil, I am ready to document it. But I will not photograph this royal “visit.”
For starters, this new phase in their life was definitely not choreographed. Whatever your take on the soap opera that is the British Royal Family, what we are looking at here seems to be a young family trying to find a little bit of sanity. That’s not the kind of picture I am interested in taking.
I don’t want to get all holier than thou on you. And this is not an anti-paparazzi tirade. But I always ask or have been invited to take pictures of people. I do not traffic in invasions of privacy. I don’t know any paparazzi and I’ve never sold a single photo to a paparazzi agency. It’s just not me.
Harry is his mother’s son in many ways, one of the worst of which is the fact that he, too, has had to deal with a lifetime of being stalked by paparazzi. That must be awful and it’s a fate that I would wish on no one.
Remember the images of Princess Diana on a billionaire’s yacht in a bikini, where her apparent mood (sadness) seemed incongruous with her surroundings? That’s because she’d only recently found out that her husband, the future King of England, had rekindled an old flame. (I have no idea what she was actually thinking, but I do remember it was on a pretty big boat.)
The news of her dissolving marriage made much conversation in my household at the time. It was the 1990s, after all, and every celebrity was coming to grips with the genesis of a 24-hour news cycle. Looking back, though, it’s clear that Diana was leading a prisoner’s life hounded at every turn until her tragic death in 1997.
Today, with access to content on every imaginable device, we are doomed to a constant diet of information that isn’t healthy (gossip is bad for the soul) and that we shouldn’t even want to consume.
Will the foreign press respect Canada’s twin cultures of civility and comity and leave Meghan, Harry and Archie alone? Or might a tornado of tabloid infatuation get out of control, pushing the Megxit decision into failure and forcing the couple into a hasty retreat to the castle from whence they have come?
I hope not.
Who knows how things are going to play out, but this mystery has an expiry date and could eventually be revealed in the pages (and on the cover!) of Vanity Fair. They will be photographed by the master of celebrity portraits, Annie Leibovitz. They’ll be standing on the West Coast Trail, surrounded by a forest of green moss-lined trees, a Pacific Ocean backdrop and maybe some photo-shopped darkened clouds. Harry will pose with Archie on his back in a hiking Baby Bjorn, his beard longer than usual, an extendable hiking ski pole in his right hand and his left leg up on a tree stump. Just a half step in front of Harry’s right foot, Meghan will be wearing a Canada Goose jacket with Levi’s jeans, a hint of Canadian plaid under her coat, with rubber on her feet (but not Wellington boots!). Her hair will be in braids, her skin will look incredible. But somehow, it won’t seem overly styled. They will look happy. Put a Vancouver Canucks tuque on baby Archie, and you’re talking about a legendary photo.
Have I wondered what kind of photograph I could – would – make of this Royal Family?
Let’s assume that Meghan and Harry get themselves a Toyota Tacoma, the West Coast lifestyle vehicle of choice, and by chance I stumbled across them on the side of a dirt road changing a flat tire. I would ask to take their picture, an image suitable in authenticity to that of a Patagonia advertisement. While the truck is up on the tire jack, I’d pose Meghan holding the tire iron, her eyes to camera, weight on one hip. Harry, oblivious to the camera, on a knee just navigating the task. Little Archie is seen gazing out the window at the forests. Meghan smiles for my camera, a countenance that reveals that they are happy where they are along this part of their expedition. “Click,” one frame. That would be my ideal Canadian portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
I do hope Meghan and Harry find peace in Canada. I hope that Archie learns to ski and gets to see a whale in its natural habitat. I love this country and I bet they will, too. How is it all going to play out? I guess we’ll have to wait for the Vanity Fair story to find out. But I’ll probably just look at the pictures anyway. Sorry!