You can’t run away from depression or beat it by just saying ‘yes’.
I pick up my story in the aftermath of a failed career in teaching. I had been working on my father-in-law’s farm and although it was helpful at the time I was not cut out to be a farmer and I was making little more than pocket money.
My wife had an interest in photography and a decent Canon SLR and she set about teaching me how to use it. I took to it straight away and found (to my astonishment) that I had a natural flair for composition. In those days there was no such thing as digital photography and I had to wait for film to be developed in order to assess my successes and failures. I began to systematically catalogue each creative option – often taking the same shot time after time and adjusting, let’s say, the shutter speed, to try and understand what I could do with it.
It wasn’t long before I decided that I should give photography a go as a career. Around the same time I began to go to CBT sessions. One of the things that CBT does is to challenge negative thinking. For instance, I would say “typical, this always happens to me”. The CBT made me challenge that statement and come up with hard evidence for it: evidence that I would struggle to provide. If I had a specific anxiety, usually some sort of social anxiety, I would be told to go and do that thing deliberately and collect evidence about what happened, to see if it was really as bad as I believed it to be. Don’t say no, I was told, say yes. Fight your fears head on in order to beat them.
Armed with this mantra I plunged head first into a photography business. At the beginning I took pet portraits with the first digital cameras (that created pixelated images that looked like cartoons). I soon moved on into people portraits but found them stressful and nerve-wracking. We made a big decision to invest heavily in equipment for a career in wildlife photography. Huge lenses appeared in great boxes.
I was brought up along the North-West Norfolk coast with its famous beaches and nationally important bird reserves. I lived near the oldest wildlife reserve in the country and all around me were farmer’s fields. I discovered that a hare could see you coming three flat fields away.
This was my area. Over the years I had learned how to spot, and get close to, wildlife – it was now so natural that it felt as though I went into a trance, a zone that could somehow connect me to the creatures around me. Whether it was years of listening, studying, understanding, trial and error, I just don’t know. But when I get into the wild I have a nose for wildlife that’s almost uncanny. And I love it.
Wildlife is part of me. It’s in my soul. I treasure it and I miss it. I miss those habitats that I once lost myself in.
My career in wildlife photography was the best thing I ever did. I loved formulating a plan and pulling it off. I did some crazy things. I have a severe fear of heights. But, I found myself in a bag hide up a huge farm elevator waiting for a kestrel to come back to one of its favourite perches at the top of a particular tree. Its yellow feet had claws with blood still visible on them from the last kill.
I found myself getting up almost before I had gone to sleep; in my camouflage gear; carrying my heavy equipment; with my face full of heavy snow; trudging into the darkness and across slippery bridges; through fields of cows in the pale moonlight; to crouch silently in a specially designed wooden hide on a famous bird reserve. I got on well with the Head Warden and was allowed to set hides up and wander off the beaten track. I had some great experiences and took some pretty decent images. I think I damaged my back there, crouching and holding my breath in wet clothes in the cold with my finger hovering over the shutter release as though it were the trigger of a sniper’s gun. Somehow, though, it was…me.
The problem was selling the images. That was certainly not ‘me’. I made practically nothing. Reluctantly, I decided that I had to try something else.
So, I headed, with my long lens, to see if I could take some pictures of my favourite sport: cricket. It was a long drive to my favourite team’s ground. As I started to take some pictures the long lens attracted the attention of the professionals to my left. One of them ‘took me under his wing’, (believe me there was nothing benevolent about it), and, whilst he was off shooting more lucrative things, I became his apprentice as the official photographer at Essex County Cricket Club.
I would turn up, down two cans of Red Bull, and gain access to all the places that fans couldn’t go. I went into the dressing rooms and got to know some of the players. They got used to me being around and I documented some historic moments for the club. I loved the buzz of big games and I felt like a celebrity because the fans seemed to regard me as somehow being of importance. I was on T.V and out in the middle with some famous cricketers.
Cricket turned into football which proved to be a whole other level of difficulty and pressure. Come away from a game with nothing and your career could be over. There were no contracts, no rights, no certainty that work would continue to flow. I was ripped off again and again. I had some real tales to tell along the way but I can’t tell you them all in this post!
Football was incredibly stressful. I fed off it and suffered because of it all at the same time. I felt that I had a job that gave me self-esteem – something I had rarely had in my life. I said yes to everything. I had successes (it’s great to see your work in national newspapers) but I had some embarrassing failures also. I was an excellent sports photographer but I was so naïve. I was taken for a ride and I couldn’t play the game, I didn’t have what it took to make the real, consistent, money. I did a lot for nothing.
Just saying yes reached its zenith when I was offered work in the business world: jobs at great exhibitions and events in all sorts of places. I was in London hopping from one train to the next and having to be in the centre for a specific time. Being late could be the end of my career.
The jobs were big, high pressure ones, and I felt that I was a bit of a charlatan. I doubted my skills and tried to bluff my way through, hiding the fact that I was making it all up as I went along. I worked in some of the swankiest hotels in London and some of the most exclusive clubs. I met some of my sporting idols along the way and took pictures of celebrities and high-ranking politicians.
I distinctly remember doing a job in parliament for the first time. I had never been in there before and after the security checks I walked around open-mouthed – and nervous as hell. I had to take pictures of a parliamentary committee. They filed in like judges in the high-court and I stood before them knowing I had two shots at best before they got on with their important business. I felt as though I was small boy with his trousers down.
I took the pictures (both of them) with cold sweat dripping down the back of my neck. It was a sign that I was under a severe amount of stress.
One by one the people I worked for fell out with me – usually about the fact that I had the temerity to ask for payment. My career began to falter and money came only occasionally in dribs and drabs and then would disappear into months of famine. I had so many amazing experiences but the long and short of it was that I was desperate for a regular wage. My anxiety was still there and my depression never went away. CBT had some success but I didn’t know how to use it properly. I just said yes.
Then I did a silly thing. I saw a job being advertised at a local newspaper in Devon, in Plymouth – a big city. We loved Devon and Cornwall and decided to go for it. I expected to fail and my interview was dreadful (or so I thought). Amazingly, I got the job. It had all happened in the space of just a few years.
We knew that we were moving to the other side of the country and that it would be difficult to see our families but I was blinded by the idea that I could run away from my depression by leaving the places that had bad memories for me. It was a new start, and, hopefully, a new me.
I had to say goodbye to my goats and sheep and the farm and the countryside that I loved. I admit there were tears.
At last we would have two steady incomes and a better life.
A new chapter began in my turbulent life, one that would eclipse everything that had gone before. Just saying yes had put my foot on the accelerator before I had tested the brakes. I had no idea which pedals to press. I was a car-crash waiting to happen and I was going straight to the scene of the accident.