Photography Saved Me

I know I am in the middle of a series on street photography composition right now, but June is PTSD awareness month and I’d like to talk about that for a bit.  This post is probably going to be a little bit long, but stay with me because I think it might be helpful to you or someone you know.  

By any measure my life is a success.  I am happily married to a wonderful woman and we have an 11 year old daughter who inspires me every day.  I am a brand ambassador for what I believe to be the best camera company in the world, I run a successful business and I work with amazing students and clients.  I am able to experience joy through art, both as a photographer and a musician.  Honestly, the list just goes on and on.  It is easy to look at my life, especially on the surface, and see nothing but kittens and rainbows.

Life is funny though, because there is always so much happening that people cannot see.  An analogy that is used often to describe this phenomena is that of a duck swimming: on the surface everything is calm and serene, but underneath the water that duck is kicking its legs like crazy just to stay afloat.  This metaphor definitely describes my life at times, especially in this busy day and age, and I would imagine it is probably applicable to a lot of us.   

Photography has been a large part of my life since 2004, but it wasn’t always my full time vocation.  For decades I worked as a paramedic.  Over a span of 20 years, through the chaos of day and the darkness of night, I responded to 15,000 calls for assistance.  I cared for the sick and dying.  I delivered babies.  I received praise for the lives I saved and the care I provided, but was also occasionally the target of violence and ridicule from people who were not happy to see us arrive on a scene or from people who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  Such is the life of a paramedic.  It is honourable, noble work, performed by a brotherhood of men and women that I am fiercely proud to have been a part of for much of my working life.

Few things come without a cost though…

Many years ago something started building inside of me.  It started with anger that would come without warning, directed without prejudice toward anybody in my way.  For people who know me, and know how much I love helping others, this is often hard to believe.  The truth is that I wasn’t even aware that these changes were happening to me.  During this time my young daughter, unbeknownst to me, became unsettled and uncomfortable around me.  Not for reasons of violence or fear of injury of course, but because I was rarely happy, because I was becoming increasingly impatient, and because I was quick to snap.  When I was not around she referred to me as angry daddy.  How crazy is that?

I didn’t know it yet, but I had PTSD.

The tipping point for me came years later when I started having panic attacks during the days leading up to work, on my way in to work, and yes, even when I was at work.  It is ironic that I am a skilled emergency health care provider, one who has provided care to people during the worst moments of their lives, yet I couldn’t see what was happening to me.  

Such is the nature of PTSD.  It can be subtle at first… silent… It can manifest in ways that you don’t even notice.

This went on for months before my world caved in.  When it finally did though it was a crushing, suffocating thing.  Nightmares.  Fear.  Panic attacks.  Tears.  Loss of hope.  Depression.  

It took some time for me to find the right trauma counsellor, one who had a long history of working with soldiers, police officers, paramedics, etc.  I spent a year working with this remarkable woman, who picked up the pieces of my life and helped me rebuild them one by one.  It was a long, slow process, but I came out the other side.  I’m sure that I still have a few demons of course, you can’t see what I’ve seen and not have a closet full of them, but they are no longer a factor like they once were.  My life is amazing again, though there are probably still times when I struggle a bit.

Now, this is supposed to be a blog post about how photography saved me and we haven’t talked about that yet.  It wasn’t just photography of course, because that doesn’t take into consideration my family, my medical providers, or my friends who had been there and understood what I was going through (one in particular, who has also battled his own demons). There is, however, no denying the fact that as important as of all of those people were, it was photography that became my salvation through those hard times.

In the darkest of days my camera was where I found solace.  Something happens when I pick up a camera and go out to shoot:  I become mindful and focused, the process of photography bringing me an inner peace.  My mind doesn’t wander, and, during that dark period of my life, I didn’t think of my demons when I had a camera in my hand.  Photography became the thing that got me out of the house when I didn’t want to leave.  It became the thing that brought calm to my life.  It was one of the few things that I still found joy in while I was learning how to live again.  Photography became the light at the end of my tunnel.

The camera brought joy back into my life again.

When I came to the realization that I couldn’t be a paramedic anymore it was obvious what the focus of my artistic and professional life needed to be.  By that time, so much had already happened:  this site was experiencing high volumes of traffic,  I was guesting on podcasts, I already had a small group of clients, I had a wonderful circle of friends from around the world (you) that I had made through the photographic community… all of the pieces were in place to make a transition to being a full time creative.  It is fair to say that photography didn’t just sustain me through the process of healing, it also gave me an entirely new life that allows me to be an artist, work with my amazing students and clients, represent a camera brand that I love, travel the world and have more time with my family.  It is an incredible thing.

In some ways it is hard to write an article like this, to put yourself out there naked and vulnerable.  In other ways, however, it is the easiest thing that I have ever done because I know that there are people still suffering, people who are in the same dark place I was in, and I want them to know that it gets better.  It takes time.  It takes work.  It isn’t easy, but it gets better.  You might not have PTSD, maybe you have depression or anxiety or something else, but please know that you are not alone and that things can and do get better.  

My life now is truly wonderful and has been for quite some time.  I get to be a husband, a father and an artist.  I spend my time shooting, teaching, writing, traveling and of course just living.  And yes, I am sure that I still have off days occasionally too.

I have had a photography project related to PTSD bouncing around my head for almost a year now and I think I finally have it worked out.  I probably won’t get to shoot it until the winter, but I am excited to share it with you.  And, if any of you are feeling stuck, I hope this article helps just a little bit.  Please know that many of us have been there and can help.  

My thanks to all of you for everything that you do and for everything that you have given me.  I love this community of people and look forward to sharing photography with you for many more years.

Best wishes,

Ian

27 thoughts on “Photography Saved Me

  1. photosociology says:

    What a wonderful post Ian and I’m glad that Photography has had such a positive influence on your life and well being. What you guys go through as paramedics is intense. As well as the saving lives you also have to face death and the horrors that have sometimes caused it. Deep respect to you. It’s wonderful that you know work fully as a photographer and represent Fuji, although Olympus are clearly the better brand. Lol. I jest of course, we all find what works for us.

    Photography has also changed my life from being suicidal and unable to go outdoors, to s calmer but more passionate existence. I have a way to go but with photography I will get there.

    Thanks for being open and allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

  2. David Pottinger says:

    Thank you for sharing Ian, it is so easy to become focussed on ‘our worlds’ when minor inconveniences frustrate us and we become ‘selfish’ and driven by the need to buy happiness when we unknown to ourselves we are living with others who face real life challenges. Tomorrow we are attending a fund raising with a very special ‘young’ photographer we have learnt so much from. His name is David Plummer and he is suffering from Parkinson’s. He recently crowdfunded and published a book on his best work the sale of which was used to support research into Parkinson’s. Like you he is an inspiration. Keep up the great work!! Best wishes David

    • Ian says:

      I completely agree David. Perspective is a difficult thing to maintain sometimes, but then you hear something like David’s story and it helps you realize that maybe things are pretty good after all.

      Best wishes,

      Ian

  3. Gerald Grundschober says:

    Dear Ian, thanks for your article about a psychiatric diagnosis and photography; i´m a psychiatrist and psychotherapist and sometimes i work with patients to explore nature / life / her own aspects with photography as a media. its very exciting. maybe i will write an article / a masterthesis about photography and attentiveness and maybe i will get i contact with you about some aspects of your work and your awarness. best wishes from austria, Gerald

    • Ian says:

      Good morning Gerald,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. It is my hope that sharing my story may be of benefit to others who may be facing their own challenges. Talking is important.

      Best wishes,

      Ian

  4. Khürt Williams says:

    Wow! Ian, I’m sorry that you’ve experienced this but happy that you found a way through it. Your post has encouraged me to keep working on my own recent health challenges. Thank you for sharing and keep doing what you do.

    • Ian says:

      We never know where life is going to take us, do we my friend? I am one of the lucky ones though… I came out on the other side with a life that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

      All the best to you during your journey.

      Cheers,

      Ian

  5. Dan James says:

    Ian, well done for getting through those dark times and being brave enough to share with us now. All paramedics, nurses, doctors and other medical professionals are absolute heroes in my book. Now you get to help people in other ways. I just finished a post myself about how photography helps me get so immersed in the moment that I forget everything else. Very therapeutic. Something we all need to do, and we’re blessed that photography can provide it for us.

  6. Karly Jones says:

    Ian:
    What a beautiful post. Please know that you are admired and missed by your paramedic family and we are holding you close everyday.
    I am so incredibly proud of what you have done and where you are. You are so brave. We get one shot at this crazy life and to be happy and at peace is the most important decision. I wish you only the best and hope to sneak some Visits in when I get to the city.

    So much love to you and yours, I miss you friend
    Karly

    • Ian says:

      Hey you! 🙂

      I would love to get together, I’m sure we have a ton of catching up to do. The last few years were a crazy ride, but I’m excited to be in a position where I might be able to help others in a different way.

      Let me know when you are down.

      Cheers,

      Ian

  7. Bruce Chester says:

    Ian,

    Thanks for your wonderful article. It was very well written, and certainly resonated with me on several levels.

    Bruce Chester

  8. Nigel says:

    Hey Ian,
    Thanks so much for the open and thought provoking post. Having been a paramedic myself for 10 years, as well as the head of a Rescue unit in a refinery and seen some savagery during my days in the army, I can totally relate to your situation.
    Like you, I found my solace by talking to professional people, who understood the issues I was experiencing, and that got me throught my “bad” periods.
    A loving wife and family also helped too.
    My photography is not at your level, and probably never will be, but I do try, and sometimes I will have a “flashback” and those are the times when I pick up my camera and start looking for inspiration around me.
    God Bless you sir, you are an inspiration to all of us.

    • Ian says:

      Good morning Nigel!

      Thank you for sharing your story too. The camera is a wonderful way to get back that mindfulness, isn’t it?

      Many thanks for your kind words.

      Cheers,

      Ian

  9. Rick Ruppenthal says:

    Well said my friend.
    Having shared many of those same experiences, I too find solitude and peace behind the lens. It’s like my mind goes blank and you suddenly become the moment.
    Thanks for sharing your story and keep on lighting the world!

  10. Phil says:

    An interesting story Ian. As a former police officer, medically retired early due to stress and a generalised anxiety disorder, I recognise your story very clearly. I got back into photography a couple of years ago, and I too find it very therapeutic and like a form of mindfulness. Funny old game, this picture taking, isn’t it?

    • Ian says:

      Good evening Phil,

      How are you?

      I think it is a wonderful thing that something like photography can bring us peace, especially after all that you and I have seen and done over the years. It’s pretty awesome.

      I hope you are doing well in your retirement!

      Best wishes,

      Ian

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