Navigating the Path to Recovery with a Camera: A Soldier’s Journey
I guess we all find photography in different circumstances.
My photography journey started back in early 2001. I dutifully reported to RAF Cosford in Wolverhampton for a two-week camera course, “Shooting Through Cover,” at the then Joint School of Photography.
At that time in my life, my knowledge of cameras was practically non-existent, and my interest in photography was equally limited; I just didn’t have the time for hobbies outside of my busy career.
However, I was aware that in eight months, I’d be deploying to Kosovo on a six-month operational tour as a surveillance asset. We’d be expected to gather acceptable intelligence over prolonged periods, and our tools of the trade would be the camera instead of the rifle.
Always eager to learn something new, I knuckled down and absorbed as much information as possible.
We proceeded over the next six months, learning and being rigorously tested on our overt and covert surveillance techniques, ready for our pending deployment in late 2002.
Pre-injury photography journey
I was the team commander of a four-man squad of highly trained individuals. In December 2002, we were deployed on a mission to gather intelligence on subjects residing on the outskirts of Pristina, Kosovo.
The conditions for this specific operation were arduous, with a strict regime and bitterly cold temperatures that plummeted to -20 degrees Celsius over a ten-day deployment.
Reflecting on that deployment, I’m amazed by how well our camera gear performed. We were equipped with Nikon D1x, 600mm lenses, and teleconverters.
We also carried a spare camera body, and even in those chilling temperatures, everything functioned flawlessly, everything except the batteries which we had to keep in our pockets or sleep with to keep them from dropping their charge.
The impact of injury
After ten days deployed on the ground, it was time to extract back to base. We had been operating under what we called a “hard routine.” It basically meant no cooking, no talking, and very limited movement; we couldn’t stand up and walk about, for example.
It’s a term that carries weight in the military; when you know you’re deploying on a “hard routine,” you understand that the mission is important and requires the utmost professionalism at all times.
During the extraction, as we made our way to the pick-up point a few miles away, I was walking down the poorly lit path, and I felt some pins and needles in my feet. I thought nothing of it. Why would I?
I simply presumed it was due to the lack of movement over the ten days. After all, I was fit and healthy.
Little did I know that this deployment would be my last.
Those pins and needles were the first signs that my feet were defrosting. My feet had frozen under the crippling prolonged cold conditions. It marked the end of my military career in 2006.
I was medically discharged after 14 years of service. I was left feeling broken but ultimately a failure.
What followed was six years of rehabilitation, although I use the term rehabilitation loosely; it felt more like a process of adjustment and slow progress towards normality.
During this time, I grappled with chronic pain, anxiety, depression, adjustment disorder, PTSD, and probably the worst mental diagnosis was that I was emotionally numb. I had no love or feelings for anyone or anything. I just didn’t care.
I was down and out.
I was a broken man both physically and mentally, in and out of a wheelchair over those six years as the nerves in my feet and hands had exploded as they defrosted, causing irreversible nerve damage and excruciating chronic pain.
Photography for rehabilitation
In 2009, my wife sought help from a military charity because she could see that I was at the lowest I’d ever been. I contemplated taking my own life. I’d sit and cry and look into the abyss. I had nothing to give and nothing to stay around for.
I guess on reflection the only thing that stopped me was that my father took his own life and I recall how my siblings and I felt.
Unbeknown to me, from this day forward, my road to recovery had started. With every visit from the area welfare officer and rehabilitation event I attended run by BLESMA and every time I stayed at Combat Stress, I slowly started to feel better about myself.
Some 18 months later, I decided to wean myself off morphine and all other medication I was taking. I was sick of feeling like a zombie and angry that my local GP refused to sign my diving medical certificate due to all the medication I was taking.
What followed was a gradual weaning myself off the medication, terrified of the pain consequences, but I had nothing to lose. After a while, I started to notice small changes; I noticed my pain thresholds were better than I recalled.
I slowly regained slight mobility around the house bit by bit.
Deciding to embark on a journey of weight-bearing exercises to test my pain thresholds, I slowly rebuilt my ability to walk again. This was a feat I would have never imagined two years prior; the pain would have been unbearable.
By the end of 2012, I was making great progress, pushing myself further with each passing day. I started to see a light at the end of the tunnel; I was setting small goals and achieving them.
By 2013, I was now venturing into the Peak District National Park, just a short drive from home.
I slowly began exploring the Peak District, taking photographs with a mobile phone, eager to share my adventures when I got home. It was during this period that I would research online for places to visit and stumble upon inspiring photographs.
To be fair, there weren’t many back in 2013, but I was inquisitive as to how these stunning images were captured; everything looked so perfect.
Two photographers who stood out at that time for me were James Grant and Fran Halsall. James Grant’s extensive online portfolio of the Peak District was and still is very impressive.
The second person that would capture my eye was Fran Halsall; initially, her sound and strong Peak District work, but an image of hers really stood out, taken of Goleudy Tŵr Mawr Lighthouse in Anglesey, North Wales; it left me in awe.
As my mobility was improving more every day in 2013, I purchased my first DSLR, a Nikon D7000.
It had been 10 years since I had used a DSLR, and I didn’t have a clue where to start with landscape photography. It was the opposite end of the spectrum from surveillance camera settings.
Add in the lack of knowledge of the Peak District, and it kept me so busy and occupied for hours and hours, which was great. I’d be busy researching places to go, reading about how to take that perfect landscape image, learning Photoshop and Lightroom.
However, what I enjoyed the most was being outside again, exploring the unknown. I was drawn to the rolling countryside. Working at a location, I’d spend time finding the best compositions and taking in the newfound views, waiting for the light to light up the land before me.
I think I also looked at life differently after how far I’d come. I was in no rush. I’m a very laid-back person; I didn’t care what others think or do. It sounds selfish, but I was in this for my own self-preservation and my own well-being.
I think I got addicted; I would be out as often as my body would let me. I tried to get out into the Peak as many times as I could, my feet being the only limitation.
For every sunrise or sunset that I went out for, I’d need 24 hours to recover from the pain.
I was building up a small catalogue of locations I’d visited, and I rarely visited the same location twice. It was all about exploring as many new places as possible, documenting each location, and working out the best time to revisit in favourable conditions.
It was the best feeling in the world: what’s over the next hill, what’s around the next corner, how can I make this location look good through my camera?
I was also getting fitter, I lost weight, and my mental well-being was good. My social circle expanded, and I found new like-minded friends on location or via social media.
In 2016, I submitted a batch of images to the prestigious Landscape Photography of the Year competition, and to my surprise, received a highly commended award for one of my photographs.
That, for me, was enough confirmation that I had achieved something.
Today I still enjoy landscape photography very much; you’ll often find me out most weekends in the Peak District.
Fortunately, I’m not one of these photographers who needs to live on social media or travel the world. I love staying close to home because, for me, the Peak District helped me in my time of need.
In 2019, I decided to give something back and created an interactive map of the best 101 Peak District Photography Locations to photograph.
It was my way of saying thank you to the National Park that has given me so much enjoyment and also helped others discover the stunning landscapes on their doorsteps. I get lovely feedback from many people, which for me is priceless. Better than winning any photography competition!
The power of landscape photography
Landscape photography is a simple yet fulfilling hobby. It has numerous advantages for both your mental and physical well-being, as well as fostering significant connections and exploration.
There’s no denying that landscape photography transformed my life. It gave me a purpose, posed various challenges, and motivated me to spend more time outdoors.
I want to express my heartfelt thanks to my wife, Sarah. Like landscape photography, she has also shaped my life, saved me, and rebuilt me for who I am today.
She has stood by my side and supported me throughout these tough times. She is the rock of our family, and I will be forever grateful.