The Duchess of Cambridge gave a community volunteer a “massive shock” when she called him out of the blue to reveal his portrait had been selected as a finalist in her Hold Still lockdown photography project, he has revealed.
Sami Massalami Mohammed Elmassalami Ayad, a volunteer at a community Food Hub in Hackney, north London, met both the Duchess and the Duke of Cambridge at Waterloo station on Tuesday as they viewed several billboards showcasing the final 100 images chosen from more than 31,000 entries.
He said: “It was such a joy to meet the Duke and Duchess and I can’t believe my picture made it to the final 100.
“I didn’t even know it was being submitted by my colleague at the food hub so it came as a massive shock when I got a call from the National Portrait Gallery saying the Duchess wanted to speak to me.
“She called me a few weeks ago and we had such a lovely conversation. She told me how she wanted to build a snapshot of how Britain was coping in the pandemic, but to show all sides of what people have gone through and are still going through.”
When he told the Duke that his colleague had submitted the picture of him wearing his plastic apron and gloves without his knowledge, he laughed loudly and said: “Oh that’s great, you didn’t know at all? Love it. That’s brilliant.”
The Duchess launched the project in May in a bid to curate what she hoped would become a "portrait of the nation", recording the "fears and the hopes and the feelings" of people across the generations.
The finalists were chosen based on the "emotions and experiences they convey," rather than technical expertise, and are now on show on billboards, bus stops and train stations in 80 towns across the UK.
The portraits will be on display for four weeks. Many will also be displayed in the entrants’ hometowns, from Belfast, Liverpool and Southampton to Gwynedd and Oban.
One of them, titled Melanie, March 2020, taken by Johannah Churchill, has been recreated as a hand-painted mural in Manchester city centre.
The Duke and the Duchess also went to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital where they spoke to frontline workers including Joyce Duah, 33, a specialist oncology pharmacist at the hospital, whose photograph, All In This Together, was selected as one of the finalists, and her two colleagues Amelia Chowdhury, 34, and Dipal Samuel, 38, who feature in the image.
The image was taken at the height of the Covid-19 crisis and depicts the trio writing their names, smiley faces and love hearts on their disposable PPE aprons.
The Duchess told them: "Thank you so much for the image. It had such an impact it captured the moment, it was a look behind the scenes.
"The story of what you experienced is so important."
The Duke added: "It is important for history purposes to show that actually happened."
Ms Samuel told William and Kate: "It will go down in history. When children are doing history or biology, they can have these photographs of mum doing this.
"There were times when goggles were in short supply. We didn't have enough visors or goggles so one day I had swimming goggles. It was so hot there was sweat filling up my swimming goggles.
The Duke replied: "I love the ingenuity and thinking out of the box. Your eyeballs were literally swimming in swimming goggles."
Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, said: “From the initial concept to where we are today with this national living exhibition the Duchess has been phenomenal. “She has been dedicated and thoughtful and what we have is a wonderful and moving snapshot of the compelling and varied experiences so many people have experienced throughout the country.
“We are so proud of what has been achieved and I hope many people will be able to get out and view the exhibition across the 112 community sites.”