I’ve spent almost my entire working life using words, and perhaps when I started my writing career over 20 years ago we were more literary people and that was all I needed. Perhaps 20 years ago we did stop to read, to browse, to pick up a newspaper, turn its crisp pages and read it cover to cover.
Perhaps then we spoke in full sentence and wrote in words, not abbreviations, and that’s how I managed to get away with using words only, musing and waffling along – as I’m doing now – and getting people to read it.
I survived without needing images, or relied on other people’s, but I doubt I could do that now. Today it’s a completely different world, and the fact that there’s something called “Twitter”, which limits you to 140 characters, proves it. Hell, that’s almost longer than my introductory sentence!
So I’m grateful almost every day for the fact that, about three years ago, I was encouraged and inspired by a good friend to pick up a camera, at first tentatively and now as a permanent fixture around my neck. I used to have nightmares about losing my car: fever dreams in which I’d walk out of a shop and look around frantically and it was nowhere to be found. It had been stolen or burnt to a crisp in a bizarre electrical fault, or somehow vandalised. Nowadays I dream about my camera: it’s been broken, dropped, stolen, the lens won’t work, it won’t turn on. My camera has replaced my car as my most prized possession.
I don’t consider myself a professional photographer by any stretch of the imagination. But what photography has done for me is that whereas I once only saw stories in words, I now see them in images too.
Soon into my newfound love for photography I found a niche for my camera: using photography to create awareness and generate support for people and projects in need, using images to give them a strong voice. And it happened completely by chance.
It was a Saturday afternoon in mid-winter and I was visiting an old age home. I didn’t even take my camera with me.
The critical moment came when I walked into the one of the women’s wards. The winter sun was streaming in through the windows, filtering through the butter yellow curtains into a warm golden light. An extremely thin but dignified old woman, wearing a neatly-wrapped head scarf and a cream blazer buttoned up over her floral dress, sat on the edge of her narrow bed, feet firmly on the floor. Her expression was a mix of appeal and stoicism. I took my cell phone out of the back pocket of my jeans and snapped one shot. Sometimes all you need is one good shot and, when the message is strong enough, the tool is largely immaterial. She was staring directly into the camera, with two other residents, also sitting on their beds, looking obliquely on in the background.
I posted it on Face Book and sent out an appeal for blankets for the residents, and the response blew me away. So many pledges came in that not only were we able to buy a brand new high quality blanket for each resident, but also enough ePap, to feed the home for three months.
Since then I’ve photographed feeding schemes and children’s homes, blind street musicians and children from a local home for the disabled, pre-term babies in hospitals and street children, and have taken many more images of the residents of the old age home. Perhaps, for me, one of the most poignant moments since I started photographing came when I printed and took some of my portraits to the residents of the old age home and saw the expression on their faces when they looked at them. It reiterated how strong and effective the language of images can be. The next time I visited, everyone had their photo on display on their bedside table.
My photographs will probably never make the front cover of a glossy magazine. Neither will they be blown up and printed on a billboard straddling one of the world’s major highways; but that’s not their purpose. There are times, I confess, when I shoot on automatic just to make sure I get the shot. Does that make me a poor photographer, unworthy of a place in the hallowed halls of the local photo society? Perhaps. Do my photographs have an impact? I hope so. More than once I’ve been overwhelmed and humbled by the response to one of the photographs I’ve posted, and the cause it represents. The images are telling the stories I’ve been trying to write all my life, and so much more effectively and instantly.
Photography will never replace writing for me, even if all I’m writing is just a few carefully considered hashtags. Writing is like my first born child: precious, sometimes painful, as much a part of me as my DNA, and photography, if what my parents tell me is true, is like my grandchild: I have all the patience and all the love and all the forgiveness in the world for photography, it never irritates or annoys me and I never tire of it. And, like a grandchild, perhaps it’s come late enough in life for me to really appreciate and savour every moment of it.