• Andrew Bell

How photography changed my life

People often talk about having a "life changing experience" and often as not, it isn't; it's a briefly life altering experience which is quickly forgotten.

I've had three or four, genuine life changing experiences in my *coughchough* years on this planet; two of which I'll probably come on to in future posts, but the one I want to talk about today is photography...

It started with buying a camera because I was going on holiday, something I hadn't done for several years because I'd prioritised life, my career and a dozen other things over taking time out for myself, which I can tell you right now is a huge mistake.

The holiday was great-ish... ok, it was average at best, with several fairly large disappointments thrown in for good measure; but the experience of getting away and experiencing something completely different to my day to day life was incomparable. Best of all, was coming home with rolls of film (remember when you couldn't just look on the back of the camera or in your phone to see your photographs?!); films full of memories ready to be developed and relived; and to bore people senseless with for weeks or months to come!

That holiday was the trigger point which made me want to take better photographs and just as importantly to travel and explore the world even more.

The pictures I'd taken were, let's be honest here; rubbish. I had no idea what any of the settings on the camera did, which film I should be using when, or why and most of all, not clue as to what made a good composition.

Fortunately, to a limited extent I knew how much I didn't know, so set off on a journey of self improvement... That started with some one day photography workshops, progressed to a week in the south of France run by an incredibly talented fashion photographer turned chef and food photographer and a fantastic (but crazy) bear of an Aussie who I sorely regret not keeping in touch with.

My next stop was Norway; where I realised that landscape photography wasn't my strong suit, but where I met some more lovely people who encouraged me to keep persevering; which in turn led me to Cuba.

It was here that I met Andy Scaysbrook (hereafter referred to as Mr Jones; more on that later); he asked me what my ambitions were and, when I replied "just to take better holiday photographs" he laughed and said he'd get way more than that out of me before the trip was over. I laughed too; I didn't rate his chances...

As the days progressed though, he took me farther and farther from my comfort zone. At first just the thought of approaching a random stranger on the street was terrifying, let alone asking to take their portrait; I didn't know anything about portrait photography and didn't believe I could shoot a picture that would be anything other than embarrassingly poor. I took to candidly sneaking shots of people from a distance; much to Andy's disdain, but he understood, he didn't judge and slowly, discreetly and often without me even noticing he guided me forward, until without realising it, I was comfortably engaging with people I'd never met before, who spoke a language I didn't and taking their picture... Well, if I could do that, I could do anything.

How, you're asking, is that life changing; it might not seem like a big step, but I promise you it was: Learning to be confident in my abilities, not just photographically but as a person; able to engage in conversation across a variety of barriers; language, culture, background and then to be able to combine those into creating a portrait to be proud of was a huge change to me as a person; knowing I now had the technical skills to deliver an image that I was comfortable to show the subject and my peers and the interpersonal skills to go out and get it was something I couldn't have believed possible, let alone achievable in just a few days.

Maybe still not life changing though; perhaps still just briefly life altering... perhaps; but the final day of the trip was the point where things really shifted-left for me beyond any doubt.

I found myself in the Museum of the Revolution; an incredible building dedicated to the ongoing struggle for freedom of the Cuban people; having walked around the whole building, learned an phenomenal amount of history (and tragedy) I found myself staring at a display case (sadly no longer there); in which was a large, old, Russian camera, beneath which was a simple typed slip of paper reading "Russian Exacta Camera, as used by Che Guevara" next to which was a picture of the man himself, with said camera... In that moment, I realised how one powerful image can change the world; that one man (or woman) can make a real difference; that there are struggles going on everywhere and every day that we can't fully comprehend... and... most of all, that real change has to come from within, that you have to truly believe it possible to make a difference; to stand up for what you believe in and to take whatever risks are necessary to achieve it.

It was in that moment that I realised how my life up to that point had been driving in the wrong direction; my ambition to achieve in the corporate world; to get that next pay-rise, promotion, a more important sounding job title; these things were all irrelevant; material desires, benefiting no-one but myself. It was there and then that I made the choice to stop. Stop putting my own selfish wants ahead of other peoples needs. Stop being stressed all day every day about things I can't do, or can't change. Stop letting what I did as a job, define who I was as a person... and, to Start. Start believing in myself. Start trying to help others. Start trying to be a better person.

Now that's a life changing moment... none of which would have happened, if I hadn't picked up a camera.

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