When I joined the London Times in 2002, it was my dream job. Soon, however, the pressures of heading up a department with a million-pounds-per-year budget and a staff of thirty-three were overwhelming. Every day I looked at between seventeen and twenty-five thousand photos. I soon went from a ten-hour day to a twelve-hour day, to a fourteen-hour day, to a sixteen-hour day. I stopped eating and sleeping properly and my marriage fell apart. I ended up having a nervous breakdown. In 2011 I decided to leave. Looking back, I don’t regret it at all.
It came to me when I attended a friend’s wedding, and they introduced me, not as their friend Paul, but as the “picture editor of the Times.” I suddenly realized that the job completely defined me. I was no longer a Christian; I was no longer a father; I was no longer a friend: I was just the job. I had been so frightened of losing that job because I would lose the salary, which would mean losing the house and then losing my family. I lost my family anyway as, sadly, my wife and I separated.
For the first three or four years of my son’s life, I wasn’t a dad; I was just a person in the house who occasionally ate with the family. I was always busy: talking on the phone, answering emails, watching the news, and reading the newspaper. I spent all day rushing and trying to sort things out. As soon as anything newsworthy happened, that was it. Now my son is the most important thing in my life and we spend a lot of time together.
When I first started taking landscape pictures I tried to emulate photographers I admired. I bought similar equipment to what they used, and drove around a lot, but I didn’t take many pictures and it only made my depression worse. I got to a place where I just wanted to end it all.
One day I went down to Beachy Head on the South Downs to take pictures. The camera was a big, square thing that takes plate film. I had a light meter and put it on the ground beneath the tripod. When I moved I kicked it and it went over the edge of the five-hundred-foot cliff. I reached to grab it and I suddenly had the heart-stopping moment of – “What are you doing? There is so much more to life than what you’re stressing over. You’re going about it all the wrong way.”
I’d been a Christian on and off since the mid-nineties. More off than on if I’m honest; the media world doesn’t really gel with being Christian. So I picked and chose when I believed in God, usually when I wanted to ask for something, but never when I had done something that I needed forgiveness for. I didn’t expect to feel anything when I was sitting up there on the cliff because I felt so alone. But then I felt as if there really was somebody next to me, telling me to find a different path. It was as if someone was saying: “You have got more to give. You’ve put your values in all the wrong places. There are people around you who love you if you let them love you. You need to just open your eyes.” I went away feeling completely different.
I started going to church again, but told the minister that I didn’t come very often because I have a little boy on alternate weekends. He told me that God isn’t just in church, and that if I find God when I am out taking pictures then I should do that. That was when I started shooting purely from the heart, and stopped worrying about the technical side of things. Now I go to places and I wait to feel moved. I try to show the emotional and spiritual moment I am in. Sometimes I pray that the light will improve. It is a matter of connecting with what I’m photographing: the world that God has created.
Even in taking pictures, which is such a small part of life, you’ve got to have a faith, something that holds it all together. My faith
in God centers and grounds me. I used to think I was the most important thing in the world. Now I see myself as a small part of something enormous.
And I think God looks after me. Wherever I go, my eyes are open to different things. It might be just a curve in a river, light through a tree, or even shadows. I’m in awe of all the beauty I see. I have been guided to it, and I concentrate on that.
Leaving my job flipped my life on its head. Getting rid of everything I had valued made me realize the value I placed in things. Why do we run through life blinkered on the money? Life is so much more than that. By photographing ordinary things – a pole in the sea, some trees on a mound – I can show people that there is so much beauty around. I used to drive to work at eighty or ninety miles an hour. Now I don’t drive over fifty, partly because it is more economical, but more because I look around. If I come to a corner and see something that surprises me, I stop for a minute and admire it. It doesn’t have to be as pretty as a field of poppies. It can just be the light through trees.
I always come away from a shoot smiling. It might be an inside smile because most people think you’re mad if you walk around smiling all the time. But it’s the sheer joy I get from seeing the waves breaking on the beach and the shape they make when they curl, or from watching clouds move and how, when the light in them changes, the shadows become menacing. And from the way the colors change from blue during the day to purples, oranges, reds, and this amazing blue after the sun sets.