Wildlife photographer Paul Williams is part of the judging panel for Mind’s inaugural membership photography competition. Here he blogs about how photography helped him cope with PTSD and ‘find light in the darkness’.
I've been a photographer for a lot of my later adult life. I’ve spent many happy hours hiking, motorbiking and mountaineering in and around my home county of Westmorland, Scotland and Wales, taking images as and when my careers as a soldier, mental health specialist and police officer (I’ve been busy) let me.
"I consider some of my best, most authentic work to have come out of the dark place I was in."
It has only really been in the last few years when I've found myself with a little extra time on my hands thanks to my good friend PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), who came to visit in 2010 and decided to move in. Although he's not around as much as he used to be, there are still plenty of days he's still in the shadows. Many of my images from 2010 onwards relate to me trying to find as much peace and calm as I could as I struggled with my psyche and the double blow of losing a career I loved and my sense of self-identity - particularly my role as an effective father.
Like all paradoxes I consider some of my best, most authentic work to have come out of the dark place I was in, and I have few doubts these special locations and their inhabitants, along with the unconditional love and support from people around me, ultimately saved me.
Since I picked up my camera with a real sense of purpose in 2014, I’ve had my photography featured on BBC Countryfile and in a number of magazines along with appearances on BBC News, BBC Radio and in newspapers including The Times and Telegraph. 2018 was also a good year for competitions. I was the winning July entry for the RSPB calendar, shortlisted for Landscape Photographer of the Year and Wildlife Photographer of the Year, along with one of my photos being featured in the top 50 weather images in the world.
2019 saw me bring out the calendar for Dorset Wildlife Trust and my first book was published with a foreword by wildlife expert Chris Packham. I’m now a champion for the mental health charity SANE and also work with Rethink, The Royal British Legion and other charities, promoting the links between photography, mindfulness and the power both have to improve physical and mental wellbeing.
This year I’ve just finished filming The Great British Photography Challenge series which recently aired on BBC. It was a tough but very fulfilling experience which tested my mental resilience whilst offering unforgettable photographic opportunities I’ll never forget. I’m also involved in an independent documentary destined for the BBC about my journey from rock bottom to where I am today.
"I don't spend much time these days looking back on what has passed, and only occasionally look ahead to see what might be on the horizon."
So why do I put myself forward for these opportunities when I know I struggle in busy places with people I don’t know? Because every 40 seconds another human being will take their own life. That’s nearly a million people a year which is unacceptable to me. I feel strongly there’s little point in me going through everything I’ve endured and to be on my journey towards recovery and not share those experiences which might give someone out there the hope that tomorrow might be a little brighter than today.
I don't spend much time these days looking back on what has passed, and only occasionally look ahead to see what might be on the horizon. I'm very much in the day; getting the most out of it, doing as much creative work as I can fit in, and keeping myself as mentally and physically fit as possible.
"My mental illness has no doubt shaped me, but I no longer accept that it must define me."
The threads that really connect me back to the fabric of my past are my images. Whether they be full of light or a little dark around the edges, capturing each one was a small victory in my battle against what was an often-overwhelming war against myself or those closest to me. Each photograph is therefore my way of saying I'm not beaten yet. They are my testament to the fact that my spirit can endure the harshest of circumstances and still come through the other side. My mental illness has no doubt shaped me, but I no longer accept that it must define me.
It's my deepest hope photography brings a modicum of peace to those who are troubled, some light to those in darkness, and hope to anyone feeling that hope has deserted them. There is always hope, peace and light. Trust me on that one.
Here’s my top photography tip for people out there at whatever stage of their photographic journey they might be on:
Be in the moment you are taking a shot of and become immersed in what you are doing rather than half-heartedly capturing an image you’ve not given much thought to. It will show through in your photograph and give the viewer a sense of your commitment to not only the process, but the fact you want them to feel something when they look at it.
I’m really looking forward to seeing the images everyone produces in the membership photography competition, and wish each and every one of you entering the best of luck.