Photography for Well-Being

Photography for Well-Being 1 is available for pre-order now. My new book shows you how through experiencing nature, inspiring creativity and sharing photos you can use photography to improve your artistic skills and well-being – especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

This week is Creativity and Well-Being Week in the UK. Never has the role of creativity in supporting your well-being been so relevant. These are extraordinary times. We are living through unprecedented experiences. Our little routines, our day-to-day lives, and our hopes and dreams have all been thrown in the air. How it will all land is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, we live a reduced life; staying home, maintaining social distance and trying not to shout at our kids or partner. This all puts a strain on our well-being. What is to be done?

Fortunately, there is lots of help available. Many experts have offered their keep fit routines, healthy eating ideas, games, quizzes and so on. But there is another creative experience you could try – Photography for Well-Being.

I am a photographer, so are you. If you have a camera – and we all have a smartphone now – you can use it to support your well-being and improve your photography skills along the way. How do I know?  In November of last year, I had major throat reconstruction surgery. Whilst I was there recovering, I used photography and writing to support the processing and acceptance of what I was experiencing, feeling, and thinking. Every day I went walkabout – not far, I was barely allowed out of the ward – and I created photos of what I saw and felt. The challenge of creating new photos each day in the same environment and writing about how they reflected my experience kept me occupied every morning. I noticed that the activity helped to make me feel more positive about the situation. They also provided the opportunity to work through what was happening and lean into the difficult feelings.

Whilst I was there, my thoughts turned to the next stage of recovery and how I could support my health and well-being, post-op and beyond. One morning I came up with the titles and outlines for more than 20 photographic activities that would support my well-being. I decided that over the next few months that I would complete each of the activities and record my experiences in a notebook; each activity illustrated with several photos. Somehow, I thought, this would become a book for others to use to support their well-being through photography. And now the book Photography for Well-Being 1 is available. Every one of the 15 photography activities in the book has been used to support my health and well-being and will support yours. These really work; I used the activities to support my recovery to full health.

Photography for Well-Being is all about doing creative, mindful photography activities and then sharing your favourite photos. Each activity has a common structure and they all include these six features:

  1. Creativity – Improving your seeing skills, learning and developing your photography skills and creating photos that you love.
  2. Being in the great outdoors (there are one or two indoor exceptions).
  3. Gentle physical exercise.
  4. Love – of a place, person, thing or experience.
  5. Mindfulness – through a Mindful Photography Practice.
  6. Social interaction by sharing your favourite photo.

It is this combination that works to create a sense of well-being. Creativity is mood-changing magic. Out of one set of ingredients, activity, situation or experiences, something else is created. In this case, photographs that would not exist if you were not out there, following my instructions, noticing what you see and creating photos that relate to the time, place, your feelings and your individual abilities. Creating photos whilst you walk in nature, feeling the sun (or rain) on your face, looking in awe at natural or human-made magnificence, has the capacity to lift your mood, illuminate what you are feeling, and allow difficult thoughts to settle and soften.

Each activity is also designed to develop a specific photographic skill. It does not matter if you are using a smartphone or a digital camera, you can do all of these activities with the camera you have with you. Some of the skills development is specific to digital cameras, but all of the activities can still be done with a smartphone and where relevant I have provided guidance specifically for smartphone users.

In each activity, there is a section called Photography Skills Development. Each activity looks at one specific skill, in a rotation of three topics: Mindful Photography (Seeing Skills), Composition and Technical skills. However you describe yourself as a photographer, each activity has the potential to improve your photographic skills. Learning new skills or enhancing existing ones, whilst enriching your creative powers, will boost your sense of achievement. You will feel purposeful and develop a greater belief in your photographic ability.

Creating personal, unique photos, out in the fresh air, learning or developing your photography skills and then sharing the photos with other people can really help to support your well-being. Why not give it a go? There is even a downloadable free eBook to give you a taster of the experience. It is called Stuck in the House and was designed especially for these times! It has four photography activities, just like the ones in Photography for Well-Being 1. It will get you into the swing of things, get you out creating great photos and give you the experience of using photography to support your well-being.

Monty was a doggy guru

Monty died at the weekend. He was a lively and occasionally very naughty Bijon Frise. White haired, curious and very friendly. He will be much missed. What you may not know is that he was also a guru, who taught me about mindfulness, consciousness and the self. Can you believe it?

Monty was a creature of the moment. His day was shaped by routine and coloured by sensations and experiences. He was a conscious creature, aware of his surroundings and stimulated by what he perceived. His sense of smell was of course, acute. At any meal time, whilst food – especially meat – was being prepared or eaten, the patter of his little feet approaching the kitchen could be heard.

His sense of hearing was (allegedly) 10 times more sensitive than ours. I could be on one floor of the house and make a cat noise and Monty, on the top floor, would come thundering down the stairs in the hope of seeing, or perhaps catching a cat.

Monty experienced emotion. He experienced fear: loud traffic noises, flying objects, fireworks and certain dogs in the park all stimulated a strong desire to run back home to safety. Something he did several times, fortunately dodging traffic as he careered across busy roads. He had more than nine lives!

He looked for contact. He liked to be be stroked, held and played with. Apparently, when we stroke a dog serotonin is produced not only in our body, but also their’s. Are they experiencing a feeling of well being? Like Monty we are also experiencing our life through the sensations, thoughts and feelings that arise in our consciousness. Monty though, lived solely in the present moment. That was his greatest teaching.

This doggy moment

Monty had a vocabulary of 30 – 40 words. Each of these words stimulated a response. Cat, food, sit, No, go, Bijon, sausage, wait etc. were all associated with an action. And whilst we spoke to him as though he understood, language was of course a concept too far. So when I spoke to him about a cat he saw earlier in the day, Monty would perk up and look for the cat in the room at that moment. Not only was language a concept too far, so was the past or future.

Both the past and future are concepts we have created to explain and cope with the passage of time. We are smart enough to imagine that the past actually exists. But, of course, it does not. It is a construct we have created and that we hold in our consciousness. The past is not a reality. You cannot touch it or experience it in any way, apart from in our imagination. If you attend an experience that recreates the past – a play, film, themed event – you are experiencing the present moment, albeit a present moment that is shaped to look and feel like the past.

Similarly, the future never exists. For when we reach a particular point in time it is the present!

Monty knew this. He knew that there is only this moment right now. Monty lived in the present moment. The mindful hound!

The doggy self

Monty had one other lesson for us. Another trick up his furry sleeve which helped him to be present in the moment. Monty had no concept of self.

If I held Monty up to a mirror he may have looked at himself briefly, but quickly his gaze would slip away to what was behind or next to him. There was no curiosity. No checking out how he looked. There didn’t appear to be a recognition that he was looking at a dog, or that the dog was him.

So the idea that there is such a thing as the ‘self’ did not trouble Monty. He experienced his day as a series of sensations, feelings and thoughts arising and passing. Each one was a singular moment and each one was experienced in that moment.

We though get sidetracked. Our mind has created a construct it calls ‘self’. This construct is constantly being refined, developed, coloured and shaped by our sensations, feeling and thoughts. Above all it is the thought that we are an independent self, different from the next person that separates us from this present moment awareness.

My concept of self is strong and is reinforced every moment of every day. Sitting in meditation or following any mindful practice has the potential to remind us that it is only our consciousness receiving. There is no self experiencing. The self is an illusion. An imaginary beast. A construct created and recreated by our conscious mind.

Monty was always with the experience of the moment. They are fine teachers, our canine friends. Guru Monty had much to teach me!

Exploring Multiple Exposure

A few years ago I started experimenting with multi-exposure (more about this technique here) – the art of combining several images in one exposure in camera. A year or so in to my exploration I lost interest as my camera could only combine two images as a maximum, in any one exposure, and it simply layered one on top of the other. Recently, I upgraded my camera and the new Fuji X-T4 has the ability to combine up to nine images in one exposure, and has four alternate ways of combining these images. The exploration is back on!

The key question at this point is why would you want to do this? The answer for me is that it opens up the possibility of creating images that can document a place, experience or emotion in a personal, abstract and creative manner. I am also fascinated to compare and combine this with ICM – intentional camera movement. These techniques are not hugely popular, they create photos that can be ethereal, intriguing, emotive and abstract. It is these very qualities that draw me to them and suggest to me the possibility of a personal project. Something I am considering at present.

Meanwhile, practice and experimentation are required to investigate the limitations and possibilities of the techniques. I have learnt a few things so far which I will summarise, but first I wanted to thank my teachers; Doug Chinnery, Valda Bailey and of course Chris Friel. Doug and Valda have worked together to produce some great videos that explore and explain these techniques; they are detailed and generate plenty of possibility. Chris has been producing fabulous work for many years and is worthy of your investigation.

Experimentation

The photo above was created during the springtime explosion of blooms at Clyne Gardens in Swansea. My intention was to create some photos that were inspired by nature’s colours and beauty, and also echoed how such beauty can make you feel. The techniques I used were ME in dark blend mode, creative use of white balance, creative framing investigation, defocussing the lens and three or four layered exposures. Let’s look at some of those choices.

There are four blend modes available on my Fuji, something that is replicated on some Canon and Nikon cameras; they are Additive, Average, Bright and Dark.

Additive – This mode adds each frame on top of the next, in a kind of light accumulation process. It is possible that if you used this on a sunny day that by the time you had added nine images to one exposure you would just be left with a white rectangle. I have not yet explored its creative possibilities, as the other modes have been calling to me. But maybe its limitations would be something that could create unexpected possibilities.

Average – This mode layers each image on top of the next, averaging the opacity. This is the standard mode for digital exposure and it is the mode I used when I had the Fuji X-T2, as it was the only choice. Combined with ICM, defocussing or creative use of the white balance it has possibilities.

Bright – This mode preserves the brighter elements of each image. For example, if your first image was of a silhouette or shadow, the second if brighter could layer the brighter elements over the areas of darker exposure from the first image. This is similar to how a film camera used to capture a multiple exposure. Here is an example.

Dark – This mode does the opposite to Bright mode. It preserves the darker elements of each image. Where there is light, there can be dark! This is the mode I have used most so far in combination with creative use of white balance.

White Balance – All digital cameras give you a level of control over the white balance. The default position is to be in Auto. In this setting the camera tries to produce whites that replicate how you see white light. Of course, your eyes work differently to a camera. They work with our brain to self correct what we know to be white, to look white, even if it is really carrying another hue. For example: dusk light has a blue hue. You don’t notice this, but the camera does. The white balance can then correct this to match how you see. Taking control of the white balance allows you to tell the camera what hue the whites should have, affecting every colour in the frame. Camera manufacturers have different ways of allowing you to influence this. Some require you to know the Kelvin values of each colour. Others have a map of hues that you can pick from. My Fuji has the latter, which makes it dead easy. My experimentation so far has followed Chris Friel’s advice – to use extreme choices.

I have much work to do. I am learning how my white balance choices work with the ME blend modes and the colours of the objects in the frame. I have also learnt that playing with the lens focus can produce interesting softer shapes and patterns. These combinations of blend mode, white balance and lens focus have much possibility and will, I am certain, be used along with ICM to produce an interesting body of work very soon. I the meantime, here are a few of my favourites from the visit to Clyne Gardens.

 

 

My 24 Photos Activity

Last week I posted an activity called 24 Photos that turned your digital camera into a film camera, almost. Over the weekend I completed the activity myself around Singleton Park and the deserted Swansea University Campus. My five favourite photos are below and I have to say, “It works!” Well, I would say that wouldn’t I? But it does. I pretty much followed my own advice, using a familiar prime lens in manual focus and having the camera set up in manual mode. My screen was also off, although I did forget to have anything to help with the count and lost track after 20. I ended up with 27 photos (a normal amount for a 24 exposure film!) and I will confess that the final photo here was taken in auto focus. Those bees do move about!

The aim of the activity is to slow you down, so as to improve your seeing and make the photo activity a mindful experience. It worked for me. Why don’t your try it and then post your favourite photos in our growing Photography for Well-Being Facebook group? I look forward to seeing them.

Photo Activity: 24 Photos

Back in the day, when we only had film cameras, creating a photograph was a different experience to the digital world we now live in. The most obvious difference was that you could not see the photo you had just created until the film was developed. In addition, many of the cameras and lenses were fully manual, so creating the photo was a slower process. Also you only had 24 or 36 exposures. There was no deleting; no checking which photos you liked and which you didn’t, until the film came back. This Photo Activity replicates that experience, it turns your digital camera into a film camera. Why do that you ask? These five reasons:

  1. This will slow you down.
  2. Slower photography means that you will see more.
  3. Seeing more means that your photos will be more creative.
  4. Having a limited number of photos will encourage you to pay more attention to the creation of each photo.
  5. Paying attention means that your photos will be more interesting.

It was using my Fujica ST705 which inspired this activity. I found that there was a film left in it – the camera had been packed away for a while – so I went around the house playing with possibilities. The camera is fully manual; shutter speed, aperture and ISO all have to be set. There is a basic light meter visible through the viewfinder which helps to get a balanced exposure. The lens is manual focus too. I noticed how it slowed my photo creation down and decided to revisit the idea of slowing down your digital photography practice. It will make a difference. You will pay more attention to the making of each photo, and that can only result in more interesting and creative photos.

I should mention that some of you may have cameras where some of these instructions are not possible. Do as many as you can. If you cannot do any of them even the simple act of only creating 24 photos with no deleting or reviewing will slow you down.

 

Photo Activity: 24 Photos

  1. Set aside an hour or two for this activity.
  2. Choose a location – inside or outside. Inside is more challenging!
  3. Set your camera up in Manual mode.
  4. Turn off the viewscreen, this includes for review also.
  5. If you have a lens that can be turned to manual focus use that.
  6. Set the ISO for the light. The standard guidelines are – Bright sunny day 100; bright intermittent sun 200; cloudy day 400; heavy cloud/rain 800+; inside depends upon the light in each room 400 – 800+
  7. Set your aperture to f8 – this is a mid range aperture.
  8. Set your shutter speed to 1/125 – this will guarantee no camera shake. It is a mid range start point.
  9. You are going to create 24 photos. No reviewing. No deleting.
  10. As you cannot see the screen you will need a method of keeping count. 24 nuts, seeds, stones or sweets will work. Cast one off for each photo.
  11. Each photo is precious. You only have 24.
  12. Each time you find a scene bring your camera up and review the light information.
  13. To change the exposure  – more or less light – you have control of the aperture and shutter speed.
  14. A smaller aperture number (e.g. f2.8) is a larger hole = more light and shallow Depth of Field (less of the depth of the photo in focus)
  15. A bigger aperture number (e.g. f16) is a smaller hole = less light and greater Depth of Field (more of the depth of the photo in focus)
  16. The shutter speed numbers refer to fractions of a second. The larger the number (e.g. 1000), faster shutter speed = less light. Smaller numbers (e.g. 1), slower shutter speed + more light.
  17. A slow shutter speed means if you move the camera whilst the shutter is open the scene will be blurred.
  18. Take your time with every photo. You aim is to create a balanced exposure. This is recorded as 0 on the exposure scale in your viewfinder; most look like this: 3 2 1 0 -1 -2 -3.
  19. Make creative choices about the framing and your Point of View.
  20. Decide upon an aperture and shutter speed for each photo.
  21. Release attachment to the idea that every photo will be perfect.
  22. Mistakes do not matter. This is an experiencing in slowing down and being creative.
  23. When you finish. Take a break, have a cuppa before you review your photo. Be kind to yourself. Slowing down is more important than the photos.
  24. If you have one photo you like share that with me.

Here is my favourite photo from the last time I did this activity. I’ll be doing it again very soon.

 

Urban Exploring

In preparation for a new photography activity for my new book – Photography for Well-Being – I have been experimenting with urban photography. I am using this term instead of street photography because it has more of an urban landscape approach, rather than activity of the streets. But it could perhaps be either.

The photography activity is called going to be called ‘urban love’ and centres upon scenes from your favourite urban environment. So that could be a town, city, village or hamlet. I’m separating it from industrial photography, as that is more landscape related and maybe a separate activity.

My first practice was in Swansea, where I have lived for over 30 years. I chose a sunny day and had in my intention a desire to create photographs of elements of the city that I love. I struggled. Maybe it was the day, the light or the lens choice, or all three. Obviously, more practice was required.

So a couple of days ago I went walkabout in my girlfriend’s home town of Porth. Porth is a small Rhondda valleys town, in fact it is known as the gateway to the Rhondda Valley. Like many South Wales towns and villages it has struggled over the last 2 or 3 decades. The closure of local coal mines and more recent austerity impact has left its mark.

However, despite it being a gloomy, dull day and the challenge of the urban environment, I enjoyed the practice and created a few photos I liked. Which is all that is required. A key feature of the difference is that I went with an open mind, no overarching intention, just to create interesting photos from what I saw. I shall be taking this approach back to Swansea and the new activity. Anyway here are my favourites.

 

 

Favourite Photos 2019

What a year 2019 has been. A year of difficulty, fun, my mother’s death, the celebration of her life, creativity, exhibitions, work, invention, lots of travel, family, throat reconstruction, a campervan and love, lots of love. This year’s favourite photos are shared in chronological order, and as such they act as a visual diary of my year.

 

Weather or not

On a murky, wild day the nagging thought that I needed to leave the house was insistent. That I could combine it with photo creation was obviously a foolish idea. Who goes outside with their camera on a bad weather day? And yet…… photo creation, plus violently fresh park air, plus gentle exercise seemed like it would be a boost to my somewhat low mood. In fact, during this photo activity I realised that is was at the heart of why I do this and how this combination of creativity, physical movement and the outdoors is the foundation of photography for well-being. Not a bad return: from gloomy stasis to an epiphanous moment.

The actual photo activity experience was quite simple. I combined it with a purpose – which in hindsight was helpful, if not essential. I didn’t need to visit the hospital for blood tests that day, I could have done it any day of the week. However, the walk to the phlebotomy clinic is through my local park – Singleton – a green oasis, even in the howling drizzle, and that meant I could experience nature at almost full force.

Before leaving I prepared myself; appropriate clothing to protect myself and my camera. I have been known to use a plastic bag and elastic band to protect my camera from heavy rain, but this wind driven drizzle led to a decision for a large, warm raincoat that I could fit my camera inside when it was not being used. I set the camera up in my usual 50mm lens, aperture priority, f7.1 and higher than usual ISO of 1600 – it was very gloomy. Before I set off I was assessing the weather through the front window and realised my first photo was right in front of me. The myriad rain droplets racing to the bottom, a salutary reminder that it was wild out there, and off I set.

The walk to the hospital is through a couple of areas of the park – the main drag to Uni, frequented by umbrella wielding, inadequately clad students – and the ‘Ornamental Gardens’, an attractive, defined area with a larger variety of trees, shrubs and plants. However, on the walk I was drawn to the impact of the wind and rain, its raging though the trees, bushes and paths, and its creation of new rivulets tumbling into growing streams.

Whilst I was giving blood the nurse, spying my camera asked, “What are you taking photos of in this weather?”

“Oh, the rain, puddles, rain in puddles, wild trees, people dodging through the rain. The usual.”

However, creating photos in bad weather is challenging. Not only are you trying to protect your camera, it is a reminder that every photo must be technically correct, and in the gloomy light, and even darker wooded areas this is tricky. Each potential photo had to be checked for shutter speed, rather than take for granted that the camera would sort it out. This led to slower photography, (something I advocate), thoughtful composition and wise technical choices, all laced with the desire not to get too wet.

That I noticed all this is the point. Paying attention to the creative process doesn’t just result in your desired outcome, it charges the practice with positive energy. The act of engaged creativity is enlivening, an essence of life. Taking elements and shaping them into something else is beneficial fuel for the soul. In the face of such positivity and surviving the sodden, windswept traverse, I returned home, refreshed, alive and engaged.

 

Mindful Practices

I have begun to get back into a routine. Re-establishing my normal mindful practices has taken a while, and I am not sure that they are settled yet. Prior to hospital I had a morning 20 minute practice of yoga and meditation. This evaporated in hospital and I took up the daily practice that led to my ‘Tales from a hospital bed’. Now I am back home I am back doing my daily mindful practice each morning, but other practices are still settling.

It’s the photography that is changing. I still have an intention to complete a mindful photography walk once a week. If I am honest I would say that this has slipped this year. Earlier this week I reviewed my photos for the year, there were less than a dozen from mindful photography practices. Most related to work or leisure. I am now trying to get back into this weekly practice and the photos that accompany this post are from last week’s practice in the Rhondda.

The main change is that I have started developing and trying out my photography activities for the book, ‘Photography for Well-Being’. This week I started with ‘Seeing the Music’. This is a mindful photography practice really, where you chose some music to listen to whilst you walk through a particular location, creating photos. There is a little more to it than that, but that is the heart of it. What I am uncertain about is not the practice. I am quite certain that each one of the 22 activities is a mindful practice and that each will support my well-being and yours. I am uncertain about how much to share here. It is a balancing act. I like sharing, but I also need to develop the content for the book. Do I complete all the activities and not share anything? Do I share a few? Do I share them all? What do you think?

 

 

 

Down to earth

I have landed. Four weeks ago today I had my throat reconstruction surgery in London. I feel that I have now come back down to earth, landed solidly back in my world. As I type this I am sat in my lounge, thoughts have turned towards photography and writing. I am ready to get back into my work, still taking it slowly, but ready to get creative.

In this space I have been reflecting on my photographic year to date, looking at the photos I have created this year and wondering about the future. I notice a difference in my photos from previous years. There are less mindful photography practice photos and more work related and leisure photos. It would seem that I have been busier both with work and fun, and have had less time for practice. Hmm.

My immediate plans are to complete my ‘Who Am I Now?’ Photography Project and start work on my new book, ‘Photography for Well-Being. More of the same it would appear. However, the work for the book will initially be mindful photography practices, as I intend to create, write and complete each photography activity for the book over the next few months. Each practice will become a written activity for the book, be beneficial for my recovery and create something meaningful for others.

It’s a plan. But you know what happens to plans – Life. In the meantime I have a list of 23 photography activity titles. Each one has a little bit of life in my mind, but nothing is written down. For each title I need to create the focus for the activity, decide upon the photographic skill being honed, do the activity take notes and obviously create photos.

I have bought a high quality notebook, to use as an ongoing workbook for all thoughts about well-being and how photography can help. Each activity will be developed in this notebook with initial ideas, notes about what happens, the actual practice followed and at least one Fuji Instax (like a Polaroid) to illustrate. I am following this format because I believe that the book needs to be a kind of workbook for you. How I get from my workbook to yours is the challenge.

The 23 activities fall into four categories. These are Green Space, Blue Space, Love and Urban. Reasonably self explanatory? I have looked thought the activities and I reckon that half of them can be completed during the Winter and early Spring, so that is where I’m going to start. Look out for ongoing reports, although anything could change, it is a creative process!

The Photos

The photos accompanying this post are from last Winter, in early January. I went down to Langland to experiment with my ‘big stopper’ lens filter and use Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) to create some slightly abstract photos of the beach. These are my three favourites.

 

 

Your thoughts about well-being

A couple of days ago I asked you, ‘What contributes to your well-being?’ I have had a great response. Many thanks to Sue, Nicky, Kath, Toby, Inge, Kate, Janet, Priscilla, Noelle, Maz and Caryn. I have collated their responses below. It makes a enriching list. The more of these you bring into your life the more you will thrive!

Gardening, the beach, helping others, having a loving family, good friends, walking, healthy food, wine, fun, excitement, my husband snoring next to me in bed, the wonder of darkness, doing something new, knowing that my family are safe and well, healthy and happy, singing along with favourite songs, listening to the waves roll ashore – dragging pebbles with them (eyes closed), smiles on the faces of loved ones – especially my daughter, mixing colours and splashing paint across a surface, line drawing in a sketchbook, warm sunshine on my skin, the sound of fresh snow being compacted underfoot, the love and greeting from my dog, the smell of fresh bread, enjoying the countryside and caravanning, classical music, glorious food shared with friends and loved ones, contact from old friends, helping someone out, rediscovered favourite music and a spectacular view.

What is Well-Being?

I have done some reading around the topic. There are various viewpoints. Some look at the concept holistically, some focus on the workplace. Some have a psychological focus, others consider its broadest possible definition.

There are however some common themes and every item on the list of things that contribute to your well-being (above) falls into at least one of them. These are the categories I will use to focus and create my Photography Activities for the new book, each activity will fall into at least one of these categories of well-being.

  • Emotional/psychological well-being
  • Physical well-being
  • Social/relationships well-being
  • Work/purpose/finance well-being
  • Societal/community well-being
  • Spiritual well-being

Perhaps each of us has a kind priority list of these categories. Some may not be so important to you. Others maybe essential. What do you think? Is the list of categories comprehensive? Anything missing?

Photographing Well-Being

I thought that I would contribute to this discussion photographically. So here are a few photos – many of which are on my walls at home – that reflect aspects of well-being for me. The header image reflects our role and part we hold within nature, and reminds me of a moment when I connected with unspoken knowing to another creature.

 

Staying Grounded

The practice of living mindfully is obviously challenging when life is difficult. During these phases when life is not as we would like it be, we can become overwhelmed and imagine that life will always be this way. We may not be able to see a way through the current difficulty. Our fears may swamp all possibility of redemption.

Somehow though, often just after it was darkest, something changes. These deep and unexpected changes may be sparked by an acceptance of how it is, or something external to our control may happen which allows some daylight to filter into our endless night. Then, as the situation softens, we breathe, allow life to move on and our fear slowly dissolves.

However, the ability to remain grounded can also be a challenge when life is fabulous. In those moments, when everything appears to be lit with golden light and we are invincible, we can be deluded into imagining that life will always be this way. We are flooded with happy hormones and life is spectacular.

Not only is this also an impermanent season, it is also one that we might chase, when life is simply bumbling along. We are so attached to the positive vibes and those warming hormones, we may seek to repeat the conditions. Of course life is not like that. As John Lennon reminded us, “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.”

The trick is to develop equanimity with “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. To develop a deep knowing that every condition of life is passing through. Appreciate the golden moments. Breathe gently through the darkest times. Know that they are all ephemeral and everything passes.

Red Van Man

As you know I have just lived through a challenging 3 weeks. Sometimes it was very uncomfortable and I was swamped with fear. Fortunately, I had outlets to help process my fears and feelings; using this blog and my photography allowed me to breathe through each day and soften with the fear coursing through my being.

Now, though I feel pretty damn good. Not only does the operation seem to have gone very well, I am in a quiet and relaxing space to recover. And then to top all that I have taken delivery of my new campervan.

I bought the van in October and got it delivered to New Wave Custom Conversions in Pontyclun. It wasn’t due there until November, but it Mike (the owner) kindly agreed to take it early to fit in with my hospital visit. What a delight it was to hear back from them that it would be ready for collection on the same day as I was released from hospital. Two reconstructions completed on one day!

We picked the van up on Monday and it is a delight. Mike and team have done a fabulous job. I recommend them wholeheartedly. But now, of course, I have to stay grounded. To pay attention to the joy coursing through my veins and breathe. It is something new to attend to. I smile and get behind the seat, and then pay attention to the way before me. I know that there may be bumps in the road, unexpected turns and other foolish drivers who may distract me. I just need to feel my hands on the wheel, see the road rising before me, smile and keep seeing all that is there.

 

Birthday Gratefulness

I have a practice that has lapsed during the hospital days. Every night I share 5 things I am grateful for with my sister, Kim in Canada. I haven’t done this regularly over the last 3 weeks, but starting here I am beginning all my supportive practices again.

In addition to my Gratitude practice I have a morning mindful practice that involves 10 minutes of yoga and 10 minutes of meditation. I returned to this grounding practice this morning. The stand out feature of the experience was that I can get so much breath in. Each breath feels something like a normal breath. I say, ‘feels like’ because it is 14 years since I had normal breath. My memory is vague! But I am breathing quietly and well. What a relief.

Yesterday was my birthday. I had a lovely day thanks to Dinah’s organisation skills and the generosity of friends. Instead of sharing a blow by blow account I thought that I would share my Birthday Grats (as Kim and I call them) with you.

  • The second consecutive night of 10 hours sleep
  • Perfectly poached eggs on Marmite toast
  • A gentle walk, breathing deeply
  • Massive slice of Ginger and Salted Caramel cake
  • Thoughtful presents from friends
  • Love and care of friends
  • Unexpected visit of old Swansea mates
  • A donation from Simon’s young son from his pocket money
  • Lots of lovely FB birthday messages
  • Playing with my new photography toy – Fuji Instax camera
  • Lovely Skype chat with Kim
  • The love, support and care from Dinah

And so on to my 60th year. In 2020 I will be 60. There is much I hope to do and much that will happen. The first part of that is at 4.00pm today, when we pick up my new camper van. Exciting. More on that tomorrow.

 

 

Long stay hospital reflections

After landing in ‘God’s own country’ (thanks for the line Si), reacquainting myself with fine wine and food, reconnecting and sleeping for 10 hours, I feel that this is the day to reflect back upon what a long, challenging hospital stay is like. Particularly to share some survival ideas and thoughts on the recovery process: the physical and the psychological. Before it all becomes even more blurred than it is already.

My hospital visit had two distinct stages, ones that I imagine are common to all major surgery events. First up is the surgery and its physical impact. No matter what the surgery, being anaesthetised for any length of time is debilitating. It throws your whole system out. Particularly, it leads to food and gas retention. I felt bloated, I looked 6 months pregnant. I was stuffed up for several days and probably did not regain normal bowel function (without intervention) for a week. By which stage I was put under for another op and it all started again – though not for so long.

More than this, the physical shock of the surgery to the body, is exhausting. Rest is essential, obviously. I was not very tuned in to anything for 3 days. This I know because that was when I started the ‘Tales for a hospital bed’, when I first went walkabout with my camera and started the process of daily reflection. Looking back now, without reading my blog posts, I remember very little of the first week. I know I was well cared for physically, my medications helped, the regular monitoring made sure I was stable and I was always asked, ” Are you in any pain?”

The second week was different. By this stage I was physically stable, off the feed tube, eating hospital food and able to walk around Ward 10 and just outside on a regular basis. My pain levels were receding and the main focus was in occupying the time. The support team often used the word ‘boring’ to describe this time. Certainly, that is a potential hazard. Having positive outlets is essential. I can recommend having a daily focus that provides you the opportunity to share how you are feeling and what your day is like.

My regular blog posts and photos both illustrated my thoughts and feelings about each of the two stages of a long hospital visit. By openly discussing and sharing these ideas it allowed me to get out what was in my head and through that process what I was living though. The insight I had during this period, that this was way of being was simply an extension of how I had been working, and that I could continue the process as a mindful blogging/photography practice from then on, seems obvious now. When the penny dropped it was a revelation.

The truth is that caring for our own wellbeing in hospital benefits from an outlet. That could be simply a regular visit from a loved one who can hold your thoughts and feelings with love and compassion. I know that I had this too, but that having the personal written and visual outlet as well, hugely supported my wellbeing.

As I have mentioned, it is this that I am going to continue. Not only with daily blogs (or as close to that as I can manage) but also creating a ‘Photography for Wellbeing’ Workbook for others that will support my own immediate recovery and help others. We all need to talk and sometimes the words cannot be found. Sometimes a photo can say everything we need to say, more profoundly.

I know that some of the thoughts and feelings I have shared in this blog series have been a surprise to some of the medical professionals that have supported me. There are always going to be moments, hours and sometimes days when it all appears too much. The nurses and doctors necessarily focus on the physical difference they can make, and that is essential. However, patient wellbeing includes the psychological as well as the physical. Imagine a situation where there was also that type of support available for patients. How much quicker would recovery and adjustment to the change of life be then?

I feel that it is in this area that my future work will develop. I already have plans for this blog and a book. I have my on going photography project ‘Who Am I Now?’ that complete with an exhibition in 2020. All of that will take 6 months, then I will see where I am and what opportunities have arisen from that work. Most of all though, I like the synthesis between my life and work. They are almost one and the same and that seems like a perfect recipe for patient wellbeing.

Reflecting on a long hospital stay

 

 

Tales from a hospital bed 13

The training wheels are off. An almost completely normal nights sleep, only a dressing change over my neck hole required at 4.40am. Otherwise a full night’s sleep. What a novelty. In fact when I was woken up for my breakfast order I thought it was 6.45am, it was only 15 mins later when the Doctors appeared that I realised it was 8am.

I haven’t talked much about the donor sections of my body that have contributed to my throat reconstruction. A small section of skin (half of its full thickness) was removed from my thigh. This was used to cover a small section of rib cartilage that was inserted to widen my airway. Pretty amazing huh?

The donor sites are healing well. As you can see above, most of the thigh donor site has healed over and I have a trendy patch. This will take about 18 months to fade and may remain slightly darker in colour than my normal pale skin tone. The scar on my chest has healed and looks neat. Press ups are still a little out of bounds, but otherwise it feels good.

Rib Cartilage Donor Site

Whilst I am on the subject of scars I would be remiss not to give you a sight of the main work. Look away now if you are squeamish. This was the look of the trachi hole and the main operation scar this morning. It is healing OK. Obviously there is still a hole for a while, and during the closing phase it will need a dressing on it. I have to press on this when I wish to talk, sneeze or cough. You can guess what happens when I forget.

Trachi hole and operation scar just above

My overall feeling, now I am out of the medication and post op fog, is one of gratitude. I am grateful for the skilled surgeons who developed and delivered this operation. I am grateful for the skilled and caring support I have received from Doctors, Nurses, Student Nurses and HCAs on Ward 10 South and beyond. They have also been supported by great catering and cleaning staff. Many of these staff go the extra mile to check on me and provide whatever it is I need. They know who they are. Thank you.

I am also grateful for the support I have received from you. My very wide circle of friends who read this blog. Thank you for your fabulous comments and kind words. They all mean so much to me. Then of course huge thanks to my nearest and dearest. For the food snacks, the messages, the Skype ‘chats’, the live chats, and the company. All of these have kept me going through the darker days and nights.

Most of all thanks to my lover, my girlfriend and partner (that’s just one person!) Thanks for your smile, your attentiveness, thoughtfulness, foodie treats, scrabble and love. You have made this challenging period pass quickly and gently. I couldn’t have done it without you.

And so onto the second day of my probationary period. A little trip out! Today is the first day I have put shoes on and walked outside for 17 days. It’s cold out huh? Because I have been confined for over two weeks, everything outside took on a novel gleam. It all looked fascinating, the people, the traffic, the buildings and the general busy-ness.

I’m back out later for a late lunch with the lovely Dinah at our favourite local caff. They do provide the best Eggs Benedict, and I haven’t had an egg for a long time! Yum. In the meantime here are a few of my favourite street photos from this morning. Freedom tomorrow!

 

Tales from a hospital bed 12

The Probation Edition. When I awoke this morning at 6 I just laid there for a while coming to. After a while I noticed a warm glow coming from beneath the blind. I slid out of bed, raised the blind and revealed the day. It felt like a positive omen for the day to come and so it has been proved.

Spectacular Start

Great news, the trachi is out, swallow test is all OK (although beer may be a couple of days yet) cannula is out and I will be out Friday morning. Hoo-bloody-ray. So in preparation for release I’m calling this my probationary period. A couple of days where I initially escape the confines of Ward 10 and explore more of the hospital, building stamina back up and reminding myself there’s a big old world out there.

I am relieved and a little elated, not only to have the trachi out and be healing well, but also to feel some normal energy returning. My excitement and high adrenaline actually meant that it wasn’t until after 12 that I fell asleep last night. But boy did I sleep. The great nurse on duty kindly agreed to minimise the medical checks and I slept deeply for 6 hours, horizontally. The first time for 2 weeks.

The way out

This morning I have had the trachi removed, seen all the Doctors, had a temporary dressing put in place and tested out my new voice. Breathing is much improved. It feels easier than it has for years. The voice is croaky and whispery at present, but this will improve over the next 3 weeks as the swelling goes down and my new throat get used to it all.

During the swallow test we were discussing how swallowing water requires greater concentration than anything else with more viscosity. I was advised that I needed to take this attentive approach to every swallow. Mindful eating is required. Oh, the irony. This is because the gap between my vocal chords is now wider, meaning that it is easier for food to slip into my windpipe. Paying attention to every swallow, means that food is carried over this risk. That implies that eating, drinking and talking need to be separate activities. A second or two is enough. Each swallow needs to be consciously attended to.

I should also mention the trachi and talking. Now the tube is out there is a hole. I have been told that this heals quite quickly internally, but the hole in the skin takes up to 2 weeks to close up. In the meantime I have a dressing on with a button I can press on to close the hole when I need to talk. It’s all a little strange at present, but will soon be but a distant memory!

Morning release

Eventually, after all the tests, removal of medical interventions and more tests I was allowed out. I initially headed for the staircase to walk down a few flights of the staircase I shot earlier in my stay. My idea was to create a shot looking up. The only way is up. Here it is.

Upwards

I got as far as this and then remembered that in this modern world means of payment is required for purchases. I’ve been in a protected bubble. So back to the lift, the ward and collection of cards. I returned again, this time to the ground floor and went on a wander to see what I could see. Here are a few of my favourites. Tea and cookie followed. What will follow tomorrow?

Lovebirds

Reflecting on Charing Cross Hospital

Winter is here

Art Break

Great Exhibition

Happy Probationer

 

 

 

Tales from a hospital bed 11

A low key edition. To reflect my mood. I am dog tired and, of course, that affects mood. Sleep has been episodic for a while now and the cumulative effect of several nights with little deep sleep is insidious. I am usually a good sleeper. 8 hours a night no problem. It’s time to get out of here.

However, first I have to get through the second operation. Later today it will be clear how successful the reconstruction has been. Hopefully, I will be breathing through my throat without the aid of the precautionary small trachi. I may even be able to talk. Eating and swallowing may be restricted for 24 hours – which is a pain as the nil by mouth has me hungry now – because there may be granulomas that have been removed during surgery.

I am optimistic, even in my heavy, boneless state. Recovery has gone well since the first surgery two weeks ago. I just have to wait and see. All being well after a quiet day tomorrow the trachi will be removed on Thursday and I’ll be out on Friday. There is a background hum of fear, of things that could not happen or go wrong. I know that these thoughts are inevitable, but as a positive character I do believe that all will be OK, and the fear can just piss right off.

The two photos today kind of reflect my mood. The header image was created when I was awake after early meds run this morning. I used the self timer and forgot to put my ever present nebuliser back on for the shot, as I was moving around the bed to get back in within 10 seconds.

The second photo was the view that greeted me when I opened the blind. A sliver of golden possibility under heavy doubt.

 

Tales from a hospital bed 10

Morning all. Last day of being a patient patient before the second stage tomorrow. Meanwhile, some better sleep last night, although the bar has been set pretty low recently. I feel more balanced today, keen for the next stage to come and go and then to be outta here on Friday.

Tomorrow is the removal of the trachi and stent. That means that my airway will be clear and I will have first indications of my breathing capacity and voice. However, it is early days. There may still be some residual swelling from the first operation, and of course the reconstructed area is all very new.

This time the operation is through my mouth. The last one was an incision in the neck. It is also a shorter operation, hopefully less than an hour, which is always better from a recovery point of view. After they take the stent out, they will assess the airway, possibly do some laser work and balloon dilation, and then replace the trachi with another smaller one. This one will have a cap on it. If my airway is OK, the cap will stay on. If I struggle, it is there to keep me breathing.

My tenth post in this series is garnished with photos from Floor 10, where I am based. I have been creating and collecting these over my stay here, just because they were there. Now, they turn out to be useful.

Yesterday, Dinah and I were spotted not on Floor 10. This is a problem. I am not supposed to leave Floor 10 in case something unexpected should occur and I have a breathing difficulty. I understand, but I am accompanied and I am in a hospital and I have got a little stir crazy. Anyway, my punishment is to be confined to the ward until the op Tuesday. I wasn’t best pleased. No rambling around creating photos today. Fortunately though, this is my tenth post and I have photos ready.

Considering that the development of the ‘Tales’ post series was an accident, in that I had not thought about doing anything like this, it has grown to be a key part of my mornings and a beneficial contributor to my wellbeing. The activity has been a central plank of each morning; going out and about creating photos and then writing about how the day is passing, how I feel and illustrating all of this with creative photos.

It has only just struck me that this is how the blog needs to continue – in a daily manner. Incorporating mindfulness into my world means that life is the practice. Keeping a daily record, with accompanying photos, gives me the space to reflect on how this is, to be grounded and to process whatever is going on. Paying attention to my day and illustrating it with creative photos. There we are, its settled. How long do you think I will keep it up?

 

 

Tales from a hospital bed 9

Sleep. It’s an essential element of our wellbeing. When it is disrupted or inadequate we do not function as well – physically, emotionally and psychologically. Sleeping in hospital can be a challenge. Here’s a sleepy tale shaped by recent nocturnal events.

Immediately after surgery and in the following few days, sleep came quite easily. No doubt my body was partly in shock, partly exhausted and wholly medicated. Gradually in the second week of recovery my general health and wellbeing has stabilised. I have had less drugs (in fact, no painkillers for 12 hours) and I feel balance is returning.

Alongside of these improvements has come a discomfort with sleeping in an upright position. I have to sleep with my head higher than my body, to help breathing. This means I sleep on my back, spreadeagled on the bed, facing the far wall. In the early exhausted, drugged nights I didn’t notice any discomfort. Now, with greater clarity, things are changing.

Before last night I had experienced two consecutive nights where I had awoken at 2ish and not been able to get back to sleep for several hours. As you can imagine I was pretty tired last night approaching 10pm. But I was also restless and agitated, once I turned the light off and tried to sleep, I got progressively more agitated.

My t-shirt irritated me, so I changed it. My legs were restless, so I got up and walked a little. I tossed and turned. The upright position got right on my nerves. I just wanted to turn over onto my side and lie flat. So, I tried that. Very uncomfortable. My legs twitched. I felt awash with fidgety, frayed energy.

After discussing my frustrations with the nurse on duty I final fell into a deep, deep sleep. So deep that when they did the usual observation tests I didn’t stir. I know this because  I was dragged from the depths by a voice saying, ” Lee, Lee, Lee.” I struggled to the surface, looked at the mocking clock (2.40pm) and heard, “Your blood sugar is 4.2, you need something to eat or drink.”

Diabetes is just one more complication. Keeping a balanced sugar level is more challenging because of all the meds and the varying recovery rates. But anything below 4 is a risk. So food and drink is required. I drank the offered apple juice, then remembered Dinah’s earlier foodie gifts, got up again and consumed two cheese straws and a biscuit. That done I laid back down.

Still heavy with deep sleep I hoped for a swift return. At 4.30 I felt like I hadn’t slept, but time had passed in a snap. Eventually, deeper, dream filled sleep returned and I slept through til 6.45. Yep, they gave me a lie in from the 6am observations.

Now, I feel my weight in the day. Solid as a blancmange. Heady and heavy. The photos with this post were created feeling and sharing this experience. It’s a fabulous gift, to not only write about how I feel, but also to create photos that attempt to share those feelings visually. Because sometimes words are not enough. Sometimes they are too much. Photography can share it all, in a moment.

P.S. For those of you interested in these things. I used my travelling camera set. A first generation Fuji XT-10 with a 27mm pancake lens. I set it to manual focus, defocussed the lens and looked at what I could see. Whilst I created the photos in colour, I had black and white in mind as I created them. Editing was done in Lightroom.

Tales from a hospital bed 8

I am very tired. Two nights of poor sleep have left me a little low in most ways and I am watching my moaning mind escalate and embroider. It’s not as pretty as the end of that sentence sounds.

I won’t throw any of those whinges your way, for they are but passing bleak thoughts that will soon enough evaporate. However, my general mood and recent experience led me to my theme for today. Having finally given up on sleep around 6 I slipped into browsing the online pages of a national newspaper. Probably not my wisest choice. This is what followed.

The Corridors of Power

Our pre Christmas treat for the first time in very nearly a century is a General Election. You know that. I know that. Apparently though we need hourly reminders. Reminders that generously offer us the very gifts we need for Christmas and beyond. Perhaps it would be more accurate (I don’t know why should I be accurate when they aren’t but hey, someone has to hold the line) to call them promises of gifts. Tax breaks, more money spent on the NHS, roads, education, free broadband, and 60m trees (not Christmas ones – missed a trick there). On and on the Christmas list runs.

How many of these presents will be sitting under your newly planted Christmas tree come the big day (25th not 12th)? After three years of broken Brexit promises do you believe your Uncle and Aunty Politician will actually put something in those beautifully wrapped colourful boxes? Or will they turn out to contain unwanted presents or maybe just an empty box? You know the answer.

As you probably know I have channelled some of my Brexit frustrations into art. Next weekend I’ll be submitting my two Brexit photos into the Swansea Open Art Exhibition, for consideration. This is a developing interest and one I will be continuing into the next troubled period. For you know that whatever the outcome of the General Election, Brexit will still rumble on. All sorted by 31st January? I think it’s more likely I’ll get my tax return in on time than we will leave in an orderly manner. I’m looking forward to at least two more photographic creations – another six months or so?

Empty Corridors

I am limited by my environment but I have realised that these empty corridor photos are the perfect riposte to the unseemly scramble for power we are immersed in. Enough said.