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!