The Portrait of Britain: A Celebration of Individuality and Storytelling

Caroline McWilliams discusses her experience modelling for a portrait that has been featured in a book of shortlisted photographs for the prestigious Portrait of Britain competition, and explores what the competition represents for Britain and for the individuals that live within it.


The Portrait of Britain. What is it? Well, according to their website, ‘Portrait of Britain is the nation’s biggest photography exhibition seen by millions of people country wide’ and is ‘envisioned as an exhibition for the people, by the people.’  The competition works with JCDecaux and is a little sneaky; screens all around the country show the 100 winning images, in such a way that they are difficult to avoid. The last thing you probably expected on your way to work was to see a photography exhibition but that is what you will encounter this autumn.

For the first time, this year’s competition also features a book of the 200 shortlisted images. I am lucky enough to appear in it in a portrait taken by the hugely talented Anneleen Lindsay in Summer 2017. After a two week run at the Edinburgh Fringe, I was in the mood to escape the busy streets of Edinburgh and so I travelled to Anneleen’s home in the city outskirts. Along with one of my favourite make-up artists, Naomi Baxter-Moore, we experimented with fun, sparkly eyeshadows and paired clothes in unlikely combinations.

Gold stilettos were styled with jeans and a Gone With the Wind T-shirt, the look being shot in front of a slightly rusting caravan. A stone stairwell was the perfect juxtaposition for a glitter ball and tulle skirt. However, the all-important shortlisted shot was a bit of an accident. Anneleen noticed that the blue of the back wall matched the colour of the Lady of Shallot T-shirt I was wearing and she had me pose in the open doorway at the back of the apartment building. What began as a happy coincidence ended up in a rather prestigious competition and then in a book.

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Every shortlisted image is completely different, with some obviously posed and others looking quite candid. A wide variety of styles vary, with the only common factor being that all the images feature a person or several people. And that is the exact point that the competition highlights for me. Britain, or indeed any nation, is only as diverse, as strong, and as successful as its individuals. I do not know the stories of any of the others featured in the book, but my imagination took off when I viewed all 200 images for the first time. It is the same feeling I have every single day walking down the street or as I sit writing this in a café right now. Who are the people around me; what is their story? Their expressions tell me a limited amount and their clothing furthers this impression, but I really know nothing for sure.

A girl dressed in a blue dress, with black leggings and a blue jacket walks past me. She has a light pink cross-strap bag and a calm expression. I guess that she is a student, having an afternoon coffee with her mother before returning to whatever it is that she does in her spare time. Perhaps she is an athlete or perhaps she writes short stories. Her hands are polished and manicured so I conclude that she is not a javelin thrower. However, I could be entirely mistaken and it sets me to thinking.

We all exist in a world where we know so few people, compared to the total population. This causes us to judge those around us out of pure curiosity. And while I allow my imagination to run riot occasionally, I must remember, as must we all, that others can judge me just as quickly as I pass judgement upon them. I am the girl who has been sitting in the same seat for the past four hours and I am sure that the barista is a little curious.

The Portrait of Britain highlights all of this and more. All of the featured individuals tell a different story but that story can only be a guess for the viewer. That is the beauty of the individual. Each of us tells a different story, yet that story is kept close to our hearts. Those who know us best will know a great deal about us but never everything. Britain, like every other country, is made up of these marvellous individuals. They inspire her, drive her, and strive to build a better nation for all.

This book is a compilation of a small proportion of those who make up our nation and I am an even smaller piece of that proportion. I tell my own story in my portrait, but I tell so many others in my heart. The other 199 people do so too and reader, so do you. Each of us is two people, the outward and the inward and that is rather exciting!

P.S. The girl in the blue jacket had an American accent. The plot thickens…

Photo credits:

‘’Caroline at the Back Door”

The Portrait of Britain 2018 Shortlisted

Model – Caroline McWilliams

Photographer and stylist – Anneleen Lindsay

MUA – Naomi Baxter-Moore

Copyright 2017

“Lady of Shalott, After Waterhouse”

Runner Up in the 11th Julia Margaret Cameron Awards, Portrait category

Model – Caroline McWilliams

Photographer and stylist – Anneleen Lindsay

MUA – Naomi Baxter-Moore

Copyright 2017