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Whilst in intensive care I dreamt of the 100 portraits I wished I'd done. Now I have a second chance at life, its time to make them happen……

I realised a lot of people reading this blog, know nothing about me! So thought it might be useful to tell a little bit of my story.  I was born in London in 1971 and brought up in a sleepy, beautiful village in Somerset, a lush green county in the West of England. Much like the village where I lived, my early life was pretty uneventful.

When I was eighteen, I moved to America in the hope of pursuing a sports scholarship. My dreams through were soon shattered after a car accident left me in hospital with knackered knees (seems I make a habit of such things). It was at that low moment though, whilst feeling depressed and directionless, that my life found its true direction

My dear godfather, Barry, sadly passed away whilst I was in hospital. He left me two things, his Olympus OM10 camera and Don McCullin’s autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour. The home I grew up in was not particularly artistic and we never really read newspapers, so his work was a revelation to me. I was hooked; both by photography and by Don McCullin’s work. At that moment I resolved that photography would be my future.

Lying in that hospital bed, I taught myself the basics of photography; photographing the doctors and nurses and anyone else that visited my room. Three months later, I was able to walk outside for the first time and the first thing I did, was take a photograph. It’s of a tree and I still have the image on my wall.

After that, I never looked back. I taught myself printing and then did a foundation course in media at Filton in Bristol. I then got a place at the prestigious Bournemouth Art College. A few months later they chucked me out – but that’s another story, for another day.

In was 1994, I was 23 and I moved to the lights of London to be a photographer. I was lucky, I quickly got work with Select, a music magazine, and before I knew it I was travelling around the world photographing bands. I loved it, music had always been a huge part of my life and now photography was acting as a passport into that world.

I wont bore you with details, but for about the next ten years I worked as an editorial photographer and dabbled in fashion. My work appeared in the Times, GQ, Esquire, The Observer, Vogue; all-in-all things were pretty good.

Inside though, I felt as if I wasn’t really doing what I set out to do with photography and my life. At the same time I grew increasingly tired and cynical of both celebrity culture and the portrayal of women in some of the publications I worked for. One day it all came to a head whilst on an assignment, I’ll write about it detail later no doubt, but lets just say for now, the shoot ended up with my cameras flying out of a hotel window and me walking away from photography and moving to the coast!

The next few years were a mixture of depression, drinking, soul-searching and self-doubt. In the search for answers I tried all manner of things; I tried to write, worked in a pub, ran across the Sahara and ended up becoming a care worker.  First for an amazing young autistic man and later I became the full-time, live-in carer for a man with severe Multiple Sclerosis.

It was whilst doing this work that I rediscovered my passion for photography. By documenting those I worked with, I discovered I could use my images to give voice to those without one. I discovered my true love was not photography, but storytelling. Photography was the tool I could use to do this.Again I will explore this in my blog at a later date.

With greater resolve than ever I set out to document stories around the world. I tried to locate stories that were less visible in the media, stories of those whose lives are only different from ours because of circumstance. At the beginning I funded all my own work, by working 24/7, doing care-work, then heading of to document the work of charities. It was hard, but I had never felt so content with my life.

Over the next six years my storytelling took me to many incredible countries, including Angola, South Sudan, Nigeria, DRC, Kenya, Bangladesh, Ukraine and finally Afghanistan. I was privileged to work with many passionate NGO’s such as Medecins sans Frontieres, UNHCR, EMERGENCY, Mines Advisory Group and Handicap International.

I was never a war-photographer; instead I dealt with those suffering the consequences of war and other humanitarian issues. The work though did mean I was sometimes in conflict areas. In 2011 my luck ran out, when I stepped on an IED whilst on foot patrol with a unit of 101st Airborne in Afghanistan.

The blast tore my body, traumatically amputating both my legs and leaving my left arm beyond repair. I never lost consciousness and as I lay there under the Afghan sun I thought my life was at its end. I should have died, but I didn’t, all thanks to the incredible work of both the unit on the ground and the medevac crew that picked me up.

Around half an hour after the blast I was arriving at Kandahar and finally slipped into unconsciousness. People ask me if on the flight I was having flashbacks like those close to death do in the films; I wasn’t. I had flash-forwards. I kept thinking of all the things I still had to do; the photographic stories I still had to do, the girl I wanted to marry, the children I wanted to have. I believe it was that, combined with the incredible efforts of the medevac crew that kept me alive.

There’s a whole book in what happened next; but lets just say it was a tough year. By the time I arrived back in the UK, a few days after the blast, my body was in shock and infected. I spent the next 46 days in an Intensive Care Unit, during which time my lungs and kidneys both gave up; but those around me never did. The doctors, nurses, my family and friends all fought for me and somehow, despite a good few close calls, I pulled through.

I was told I might never walk again and would struggle to live on my own without support.

A long hospital stay, many more operations and hard rehab followed. But on Feb 7th 2012, a year to the day after my injuries, I had my last major operation, a colostomy reversal. With all my operations done, I could start on the next stage, rebuilding my life.

Things since then have been difficult, but I’ve had incredible support from physios, prothetists, my partner and family and thanks to them all, I’ve learnt not only to walk again, but am living fully independently and have even returned to photography. In October 2012, I was able to return to Afghanistan to do a photo-story on civilian casualties. It marked the point when, in many ways, I had my life back. You can read more about that here in an article I did for the Observer.

However to reach that point I had, in many ways, pushed myself too hard. I’d been so focused on reaching a point where physically I had my life back, that I hadn’t really given myself the chance to come to terms with things mentally and emotionally.

I look back to when I was injured and I think if then I’d been told of what I would have achieved in two years, I would have been over the moon. And I am so grateful to where I’ve got. From day one I’ve always focused on what I can do, not on what I cant and that’s been a major factor in getting me this far. However things are different. My life will never be the same; which is not to say it can’t be fantastic, but I do have to accept it’s different.

I am in many ways the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m in love with a truly wonderful woman, my work has gained more attention and I’m able to be more active campaigning for the charities I work with. However life is hard at times too. Despite the obvious changes of being a triple-amputee, I have to learn to deal with the constant pain, the financial difficulties, further operations and the need to rebuild my career.

Most importantly I think I have to truly come to terms with what’s happened and to how my life is different. For a long time I’ve fought that, pretending I could make everything as it was before. I cant, but I have to learn that accepting my circumstances if not the same as being defeated by them.

So this is where the 100 Portraits Before I Die project comes in. Yes, in some ways it’s a little self-indulgent, but my life has been dominated by injury and conflict for nearly ten years, culminating in my own experience.  I feel like I just need a break from that. To focus on my passion for portraiture, to meet many of those who have influenced my cultural life, to rebuild my career, my confidence, to learn to accept what’s happened to me and most important to enjoy life and fuel my passion for photography!

For those interested you can see my documentary work here

Thank you all for your support!

“If I knew how to take a good photograph, I’d do it every time” – Robert Doisneau

I guess I always knew the problem with writing a blog about this project, is there would be nowhere to hide when things go wrong. And I always knew things would go wrong at the beginning.

When I was teenager I remember meeting a wonderful old hippy in San Francisco. And I mean a proper dead-head, been to Woodstock, lived it hippy. In a stoned monologue he explained that he grew his hair long, because otherwise all the strands of hair would be inside his head, tangled, confusing his thoughts! Even as a somewhat naive eighteen year old, I wasn’t convinced by his logic, but the way he told the story and his passionate defence of his theory always stuck in my mind.

Well, I’ve got to be honest; I think I know what he meant now. My head is so full of stands of thoughts right now, ideas clumped in knots, my brain incapable of breathing with clarity. I just can’t think straight. I’ve become paralysed with the shear bulk of possibilities.

Let me explain a little more clearly – if I can! This project is really all about transition. From documentary photography to portraiture; from being athletic, to a triple amputee; from living in the moment, to now considering each move; from spontaneity to planning; documenting human suffering to portraits of artists; from being what I was, to who I am now.

Now I don’t say any on the above to ellicit any sympathy. Each of us is on a constant journey of change through life, some good, some bad; but all helping to define us. I am lucky; at first they thought I wouldn’t live, then I was told I wouldn’t live independently, that I wouldn’t work again and here I am, doing all those things. I am, weirdly, in many ways happier than I have ever been. So no, I don’t ask for sympathy, but there is a reality, my life changed dramatically in the space of a few seconds. And whilst I spent the first two years fighting the physical damage and regaining my independence, now I must adjust mentally to my new life.

Anyway, I’m getting a little to heavy right now. The point is this. I am capable of so much, and that is my focus. However I need to learn to deal with what I can’t do.

So what the hell has this got to do with a hippy’s head full of hair and portraits?! In the past two years I’ve had so much time to think and so little time to do. Hours and hours, confined to beds have given me time to consider everything about how I would take these photographs; what style, what lighting, tones, shades, contrast; every element has been considered. I’ve had time to reflect on my past work, to study the work of others, to see what’s in trend, what is not. My brain has become so full of these thoughts that I’ve lost part of my vision.

When I photographed Gino Strada, I was happy with the results, but not when I photographed Ben Okri. I tried too hard. My ideas bore no relation to what I could do physically. Going on the London underground, in rush hour, carrying my camera bag, trying to change lenses with one hand and balancing on prosthetic legs was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done physically. I pushed myself to the limit. The result? The result was a lot of sweat and me being so focused on being able to physically do the photograph, that I forgot what this was all about. I was so side-tracked by my exertions that I didn’t work on my connection with the subject.

I don’t want my disabilities to be an issue or the focus of this blog, but in order for that to happen I have to avoid situations where they are – if that makes sense?

Now I’m not saying they are the worst photographs in the world. I know I can always pull together an ok image, but that is what they are; ok. These portraits have the opportunity to be really special, but only when the connection between the subject and me is the focal point.

What I’ve learnt is, I need to make everything easier on the physical side, so I can focus on my subject and then have a true conversation with them through my camera.

So, as I say, it was not a disaster, I got the photo, but on reflection it could be so much better. I’ve contacted the wonderful Ben Okri and he has kindly offered to sit again, so somewhere down the line you will be seeing version number two! As Ben so perfectly and generously put it, “I did not expect this to be one session, you’re on a journey and I’m honoured to help.”

So I took a bit of time out this week. Went to the Dorset coast, saw my family, gazed blankly at the sea, drunk some cider and cleared my head.

Now I’m back in London and my thoughts are clearer. I just need to relax, enjoy doing the portraits, forget trying to prove anything, adjust to things, trust my eye, let the photographs breath.

And so, to the next portrait and time to stop thinking about it so much, have fun and let my hair grow out a little!

Sometimes, someone’s small, random moment of generosity can cause ripples far beyond the actual gift. Whether we choose too or not we influence the lives of those we meet, no matter how fleetingly or insignificantly. None of us know what impact we have on the lives of others, but we do and we can choose to make that a positive one.

I was living in Bristol, I was 20 and times were a little tricky for me. I was still recovering from the car crash that had changed much in my life and was struggling to find a new direction. I’d just started taking photos but it was still very much a future in its infancy. I was skint, crashing on friends’ floors, somewhat depressed and listless.

Limited funds meant my social life was a little limited. My friend Amanda worked at the Watershed Arts Center and she would sneak me in to film screenings and talks. They were a big part of my life. I often didn’t know what or whom I would be seeing, but it was an escape that I took full advantage of.

One day I found myself at a book reading by Ben Okri who had just won the Booker Prize for The Famished Road. Up to that moment I had never heard his words, but as I sat at the back of the crowded reading I was utterly moved and captured by his dreamscapes of tradition, storytelling and Africa. His words were so alive.

After the reading, people queued to have their books signed. For some reason I joined, despite my situation meaning I couldn’t possibly afford to but a book. When I reached the end of the queue I stood their bookless, a little lost and could only utter thank you.

Ben looked up at me, took a copy of his book, and wrote in it, before passing it to me, without a word. A book, in many ways a small gift, but a gift that I would take home, read and treasure. A book that opened my mind to the traditions of storytelling and woke a love for Africa, its people and culture, a love for both that still continues to grow.

I can see so much of what I would do a decade later, planted as seed in that book that was given with such simple kindness.

Twenty years later when lying in a hospital bed, I thought of that moment. As I said earlier, we can never know the impact our decisions and actions, no matter how small, on those who’s paths we cross. So I was thrilled when Ben said he would love to sit for a portrait. I’m not sure if making a photographic portrait of someone of a gift, but for now it was I have to give. It’s a way of acknowledging the impact of others art on my path.

One thing I’ve not really spoken about is that since my accident, I’ve struggled to read. In the two years since the bomb blast I’ve been unable to muster the concentration to read more that a few paragraphs at once. I’ve not once read a book in that time. It saddens me that this pleasure has for now been taken from me. I have no doubt it will return, but for now, it somehow makes photography that little more precious.

Today I’m off to see Ben. I’m not going to lie, I’m so nervous, not of meeting him but of my ability to create the image that captures even some part of his incredible spirit. For some reason I always had the idea of photographing him on a train, the underground or on a busy platform. I think that’s because I associate his work with travel, distant places, his presence as calmness in the chaos of our city, London. I’ve opted tp try on the underground.

This is still a big transition, to go from doing my documentary work back into portraits. I don’t think I’m seeing clearly yet. And since my accident I haven’t been strong enough to even go on an underground, let alone carry my kit and take photos!

We shall see what happens…..

Do you ever have one of those days were everything goes right? No, me neither. I’m having one of those mornings; I overslept, couldn’t get my legs on, taxi was late and London traffic is its stifling self. I’m an hour late getting to the studio and my levels of stress aren’t helped by the news that Gino is running early. I have about 45mins to prepare for my first studio shoot in 10 years. Shit.

 

I’m not going to bore you today with why I gave up portrait work, that’s for another day. But in brief I spent ten years as an editorial photographer, much of which was based in the studio, before spending the next ten years doing documentary work. So now I find myself back in the studio, I’m filled with a wonderful sense of familiarity and excitement, but looking around it’s tempered by a realisation of how much the equipment and myself have changed. Last time I was in a studio it we shot on film and I had all my limbs. I suddenly feel very out of my depth.

For months I’ve been thinking about this portrait project and most especially thinking about how to approach it technically. When I was an editorial photographer I used complex lighting set-ups, but that’s long behind me now. In the last ten years I’ve developed a style in documentary that is simple and clean and I want to try and replicate the natural lighting I’m used to. I don’t want the lighting to be intrusive, merely a tool to let me do my work. These days my work is all about the subject, not the photographer or the technique.

So I’ve settled on a simple tungsten lighting set-up (tungsten is a constant light source, as used in films, as opposed to a flash). Two tungsten lights are placed either side of the subject, but pointed at large white polystyrene boards which are behind me. The light bounces off them, bathing my subject in a soft but direction light, similar to the effect of daylight coming through a window. Either side of the subject are two full-length black polystyrene boards that add definition to the sides of the sitters face.

It’s simple, but I hope effective. For me, one of the key points is I wont be using flash. It can be so distracting and often causes the sitter to pose. Constant light feels more natural. Another benefit is I can make the shutter’s exposure a little longer (say around 1/60th) meaning there is a hint of movement in the image, softening the details and giving the face more ‘life’.

 

Well, that’s the theory.

 

 

I’ve had to hire all the equipment and I desperately trying to get it all set up in time with my assistant Noemie. It seems during my ten-year hiatus even the lighting stands have changed. I’m fumbling around trying just to set that up, it’s the most basic piece of kit here, but every time I let go of the stand, it just collapses and keels over. I’m the photographic equivalent of the embarrassing dancing dad at a wedding disco; a head full of fabled disco day memories, a present day of uncoordinated reality.

I decided to make a coffee but even there I’m faced with a NASA style interface and am left bewildered and coffee less.

In my planning I’d always thought the moments leading up to my first portrait would be a time of calm and reflection. A time to consider my subject and to focus on how I was going to record their essence in a single frame. Instead I’m a wreck, sweating like crazy and talking inanely to myself.

I’m also aware that I’ve underestimated the power of the lights. The 2.5k tungsten’s aren’t giving out enough light to make my set-up work as I’d hoped.

And it gets worse; I made a last minute decision to shoot this project on a medium format camera, something I was did all the time when I worked in studios. These larger format cameras are bulkier, but well suited to a studio where the produce much more detail in the finished images.

The last ten years though have seen a revolution. Last time I shot in a studio it was on film. Now I have a digital Hasselblad in my hands and I have no idea how it works. Naively I thought it couldn’t be that complicated, but I can’t even turn it on.

Hiring equipment your unfamiliar with for a pressure shoot.

Schoolboy error.

 

Gino turns up. I desperately try and look calm. There’s a crash as a lighting stand falls over behind me. I smile meekly.

Thankfully something then goes my way; Gino also has to do an interview and Carole, the journalist, has just arrived. I persuade everyone that it might be a good idea to do that first; I reckon that gives me about an hour to get everything together.

I do what anyone else would do in this situation. I Google ‘how to use a Hasselblad’. I find an idiots guide on you-tube. Then on my next attempt, the coffee machine warms to me and I get an espresso. Suddenly things are all looking good.

 

When the hour has passed and Gino is ready, so am I. Noemie and myself have managed to position the lights close enough so that I can generate enough light and my Googling, coupled with a smattering of common sense, means I’ve got the camera under my control.

Gino steps in front of the camera and suddenly I forget about all the technical issues. At the end of the day they are nothing. Its just about Gino and me. I’m a portrait photographer taking a portrait for the first time in ten years and it fees like the most natural thing in the world. I’m feel like I’m home.

 

 

 

Khartoum, Sudan, 2010. The light is a photographer’s dream. I’m sat against a wall, under a covered walkway, in the sweltering Sudanese sun. It’s rays are being gently reflected off the white walls that surrounded me and bounced off the smooth white granite floors. I’m bathed in the most perfect diffused light, a strong highlight glints in my eye. I could not create this lighting better in a studio. Everything is ready to go, I’m just missing one thing….

For two weeks I’ve been coming here, to this exact spot, at this exact time, to create portraits in this dreamy light. The spot is outside the main entrance of the Emergency’s Salam Cardiac Centre, near Khartoum, where I’m doing a photo-story on their incredible heart surgery programme. Everyday I’ve been doing portraits of the recovering patients in the days after their surgery; they’ve been more than willing, often returning the next day for another photo. But one subject has avoided me, Gino Strada, the surgeon and founder of this hospital.

I don’t really have heroes but if I did, Gino would be on the list. He’s a man who’s achievements and passion I’m truly in awe of. Whilst he might seem world weary on the exterior his belief and dedication to helping civilians caught in war and poverty is undimmed. He’s an inscrutable subject, with depths and inner fires that as a photographer I desperately want to capture in a single frame.

I’ve taken photos of him whilst he was operating and he’s promised me I can take his portrait, but somehow everyday, when the light is perfect and he knows I lie in wait he’s disappeared. Today is no different. I pop my head into the administration office to ask if anyone’s seen Gino. Nobody’s sure; maybe he’s in surgery?

Today is my last day in Sudan and there are a few other images I want, so I decide to go for a wander. When I return, an hour later, the sun has shifted and my perfect lighting is on the edge, maybe another 15mins and it will be gone.

As I’m looking around, Weddy and Eunice turn up. Everyday my heart smiles to see these two Kenyan girls. With huge smiles, holding hands, singing songs, these girls were weeks from death, without the strength to walk or play when the staff at the Salaam centre operated and saved them. Now, just days after their surgery, they are radiance and life personified. I’ve already taken their photographs, but I haven’t done one of them together. I know my time to get Gino is limited, but I can’t resist and ask them to stand against the wall for a photograph. I’ve never been so happy looking through a cameras lens.

I show them the image on the back on my camera and the smiles grow. I am unaware that this magical moment would be one of the last images I make before I am injured in Afghanistan. In the months ahead, this photograph of Weddy and Eunice’s smiling faces would give me strength in darkest times. Of course I couldn’t know that then.

I suddenly realise my precious light is about to die, shadows rip across the white backdrop and the lights taken on a reddy dust glow, I dash back into the administrator’s office. They tell me I just missed Gino, he was there, but now he’s gone home. I’ve missed my chance. My head sinks.

ImageWeddy and Eunice, Sudan 2010

London, 2012: It’s nearly two and a half years later and my life has changed beyond recognition. I’ve suffered a terrible injury, been in a hospital for nearly a year, had 30 operations, learnt to walk again, to take photos again; I’ve only just regained my life. But now I have regained it, I decided its time to start my 100 Portrait project. Out of all the names on the list Gino’s stands different. It wasn’t that I didn’t get the opportunity; it’s just that I missed the chance. I’ve never really lost a photo like that and I’m determined to get another opportunity.

So imagine the sense of synchronicity I feel when I find out at the moment of embarking on the project, that Gino will be in London! It’s an incredibly rare visit and I know a one off chance to get him in the studio, something I know he would normally say no to. I have one trump card though; I’m part of the team arranging his visit.

At a meeting I slip an hour’s visit to a studio into the timetable and everyone else laughs. Gino can’t say no this time. And of course, with his generous spirit its something he agrees to willingly. When we meet at the studio he puts his arm on my shoulder, shrugs and says, “So, we do it this time?” He smiles wryly. My heart pounds, I’ve waited nearly three years to take this photograph. I’ve been through a personal hell in that time, yet somehow I’m here, back where I left off. I’ve set up my lights to reflect the conditions in Sudan and this time I have my subject. A truly incredible man, whose story I’m finally going to try and capture.

Although I say it myself, I hate the phrase ‘taking a photograph’. Made or given, but never taken. A portrait especially is a gift, a conversation between to people. In the past I tried to take Gino’s portrait and failed, as he steps in front of my camera Gino Strada is giving me his portrait. It’s a wonderful gift and the perfect way to start my project.

One portrait done, just 99 to go…

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