The Entire History of Me - How I Became a Photographer

In 2007, aged 20, I returned to my hometown of Witham after living away for a few years. A friend of a friend got me a job at the local Wetherspoons. Up to this point in my life I had worked as a projectionist, barista, skate shop sales assistant and a pond builder.

 

None of them memorable, except for working at a cinema. Being behind the scenes, managing the reels of film and maintaining the giant projectors was, to this day, one of  my favourite experiences.

 

But now I was a barman. New people in an old town. It was nice to be back. 

 

I had no direction but I was content. I grew close with colleagues and the customers. When we weren't working, we socialised in a flat above the pub, playing too much Wii Bowling and CoD4: Modern Warfare.

 

Then in December 2008 a friend bought me a book that would change everything.

 

"This Diary Will Change You Life 2009? Thanks!", I said.

"I remember seeing a 2006 edition at your old place", Steph replied.

I did remember that. I had glanced through the pages once or twice but never took much notice.

The basic concept is to devote yourself to the challenges set by Benrik, the authors of the book. The first challenge was. "Make a New Years Resolution that no one in history has made before".

A week later at a NYE party, Steph asked what mine was.

In a drunken state, I shout "I want to visit the arctic circle and melt ice with an iron to aid global warming". 

Pretty sure I've never heard that one before!
 

Manager and friend Marcus on the roof the pub
Manager and friend Marcus on the roof the pub

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Manager and friend Marcus on the roof the pub
Manager and friend Marcus on the roof the pub

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The diary
The diary

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Steph placing a message in a bag she was returning
Steph placing a message in a bag she was returning

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The diary
The diary

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I didn't remember my ramblings the next day, but Steph had and said she'd look in to making it happen.

In the meantime we started to complete challenges from the diary. The first was "Subvert consumer society from within - visit luxury stores, pretend to examine their goods and use the opportunity to hide these messages inside".

We went to London for the day and visited several shops, including Harrods. Messages ranged from "this bag will not make up for your loveless childhood" to "this vase is expensive and empty - same as you?. 

It was exciting. I'm not a Marxist but I did grow up extremely poor. It was satisfying to place a card in a fur coat that was ON SALE for £25,700. It was also very exciting. As if we were shoplifting, without breaking any laws. 

After the 2009 edition Benrik released an updated and timeless version: "This Book Will Change Your Life". Well worth a look if you want to step out your comfort zone.

In February Steph mentioned the arctic is too far and I have never owned a passport, but what about Scotland?

"Is there ice in Scotland?", I asked. I needed to get out more. 

In March 2009 we set off for my first ever road trip from Essex to Fort Wiliam, Scotland. We left at 10pm the day of my birthday, driving through the night and was passing through Glen Coe when the sun rose.

What a sight that was. Apart from Carlisle, Newcastle and Lake Windermere, I had never really travelled anywhere. I never could have imagined a place as beautiful as this could be only 9 hour drive from home.  

I borrowed Steph's camera and started snapping away. We stayed in Fort William for a few days, exploring Glen Nevis and the surrounding area. Around every bend and mountain was something new to explore.

I wasn't concentrating on composition or settings. I didn't even know what it was at the time, but I wanted to capture as much as I could of my first experience in the wild. I easily took 1000 photos in the few days we was there.

I didn't remember to bring an iron! Nevermind.

We then drove to the Lake District, which was stunning in its own way. The caves, lakes and ancient roads were out of this world. 

Finally we stopped off in Lincoln for a night to break up the drive home. 

Glenfinnan, Scotland
Glenfinnan, Scotland

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Glenfinnan viaduct, Scotland
Glenfinnan viaduct, Scotland

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Fort William
Fort William

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Glenfinnan, Scotland
Glenfinnan, Scotland

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Glenfinnan, Scotland
Glenfinnan, Scotland

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Fort William, Scotland
Fort William, Scotland

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Ben Nevis summit
Ben Nevis summit

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Glenfinnan, Scotland
Glenfinnan, Scotland

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After we returned to Essex, I made an album of my favourite shots from the road trip. I shared them with Steph and she showed them to her collegues.At the time she worked as an accountant at a modelling agency in London.

As she was sharing the pictures, the staff photographer was walking past her PC. "Great shots", he said. Steph explained who took them and he suggested I take it up.

That was the spark that made me want to explore photography and see much more of the UK. I don't know that person's name but thanks for the encouragement.

In July of the same year, Steph and I returned to Scotland with our good friend Marcus. The difference in colours and atmosphere from March to July was just incredible. The entire landscape had transformed from a deep red terrain with dark grey clouds and swirling rapids to lush green expanses, blue skies and streams.

It was like visiting for the first time again. On our original trip there we stayed at the foot of Ben Nevis. We walked up a few hundred feet but the steps were slippery and it was raining quite hard. This time the conditions were ideal so we set aside one of our days in Scotland to give it a go.

I think we might have set a record for slowest climb ever but we made it to the top. The views were mind blowing and so many angles and points of interest to photograph.

On our return journey we also visit Northumberland National Park, which is overlooked by the majority but was a wild and stunning place.

 

I decided on my return to Essex I wanted to work for the YHA (Youth Hostel Association) so I could see more of the country and try a different job. We had stayed in several of them on our travels and they all had their own character.

 

I applied to a dozen locations in the UK and got accepted by Exeter branch in Devon. A few weeks later I moved down and spent the summer working in the hostel. I had always had a small town upbringing and as I had never been abroad, working with and hosting different nationalities was fantastic and great fun. 

The city was stunning and there was so much to see and do. I would print a map off the PC and cycle in to the countryside, exploring the small villages and practise photography. 

I then applied for another position in Snowdonia National Park, but after travelling there it was clear they needed someone with a driving license, so I returned to Essex .

Over the next 18 months we went on several more road trips to Wales, Peak District, South Downs, New Forest and various smaller national parks. My photography skills were slowly improving, but I was still shooting in auto. I could compose a shot correctly, but had no control over the exposure, depth of field etc. 

This would cause issues when the weather wasn't ideal or the light was fading. At the same time I received my first smart phone as a gift. Having the ability to edit my images really helped me highlight issues.  Also having YouTube in mobile form was a game changer for learning new techniques. So I upgraded from a compact to a Lumix G3.

YHA Exeter, Devon
YHA Exeter, Devon

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View of Exmouth, Devon
View of Exmouth, Devon

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Snowdonia National Park, Wales
Snowdonia National Park, Wales

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YHA Exeter, Devon
YHA Exeter, Devon

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© 2022 - CHRISCHARLESCOOK. 

Sunrise in Bruges, Belgium
Sunrise in Bruges, Belgium

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Bruges, Belgium
Bruges, Belgium

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View of the Alps from Berchtesgaden, Bavaria
View of the Alps from Berchtesgaden, Bavaria

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Sunrise in Bruges, Belgium
Sunrise in Bruges, Belgium

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Soon after I got my first passport and visited Bruges for the day. A beautiful city with dozens of alleyways and lanes, all leading to some very unique architecture.

 

Steph and I then flew to Salzburg to visit Zell Am See and Berchtesgaden. I am a huge fan of the HBO series "Band of Brothers" and a keen reader of WW2 stories and events. The 101st airborne captured Hitler's Eagles nest at the latter.

 

It was an amazing trip and the scale of the Alps was just unbelievable. The new camera was doing its job and I was starting to understand the settings to get the best shot possible.

I was enjoying landscapes and wildlife photography. Travelling around Europe was an exciting and eye opening adventure. But I couldn't see a route to earn money in this genre. The bar is so high and the opportunities are small.

Up to this point I hadn't ever considered the possibility of making a career in photography. I didn't really know how. But I figured that if I kept learning and try to cover different genres, hopefully an opportunity would arise.

Later that year I was proved correct when a large fire broke out in WItham.

It was an ordinary day and I was heading to work at the pub, which I had recently returned to. As I approached the highstreet, I saw a large plume of smoke rising from behind the houses.

As I got closer to the scene I realised it was the local motorcycle shop. Huge flames were fanning over the walls and the local fire crew did their best to beat back the inferno.

I always kept my camera on me by this point. Photography was filling most of my free time. Pets. families, parties. Whatever I could do to learn as much as possible.

I took my camera out and captured the scene. There was a few other people filming the fire too which made me more comfortable, but it was somewhat nerve-wracking. 

After I finished work I edited the shots and shared them with my friends. I knew they were newsworthy but didn't know what to do with them. I had heard of the Essex Chronicle and it had been around my whole life, so I emailed the editor and sent the photos over.

Thursday came around at the latest edition of the paper was published. 

"ARSONIST BURRNS DOWN MOTORCYCLE SHOP", read the headline with my picture filling the front page.

Motorbike shop fire - Witham
Motorbike shop fire - Witham

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Motorbike shop fire - Witham
Motorbike shop fire - Witham

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Madness - Chelmsford City Racecourse
Madness - Chelmsford City Racecourse

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Madness - Chelmsford City Racecourse
Madness - Chelmsford City Racecourse

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Essex Chronicle front page
Essex Chronicle front page

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Madness - Chelmsford City Racecourse
Madness - Chelmsford City Racecourse

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It was insane to see my picture in print and I was riding a high from it for weeks. I wanted to know what else I could cover so I started to read all the local newspapers to see what made the cut. 

I did discuss possibilities with the editor for employment but they already had a group of full time photographers and I was also lacking experience. 

For the next few years I kept my eye for stories. A taxi driver stranded in a ford after ignoring the warning signs in the dead of night. A freak storm battering Witham, causing roofs to be blown off and trees to fall. Whatever I thought caught the eye.

I finally learnt to drive after taking a week's intensive driving course and upgraded my camera again to a Canon 6D. I put it off for a while but I was feeling more comfortable shooting in manual mode and the G3 was not a pro level camera. 

I maintained a relationship with the paper. They provided useful feedback which helped a great deal. There isn't much content on YouTube covering press photography. Almost zero actually.

But the basics are simple. Establishing shot, mid range shots telling the story, then close up detail. If it's breaking news the order is usually reversed, as you don't want to miss the smaller details as time is much more limited.

Out of the blue one day I received a call asking if I could cover a Madness gig at Chelmsford City Racecourse. I had never shot live music before, but I jumped at the opportunity. With no idea what settings or techniques Ito use I searched on YouTube and watched a 30 minute tutorial.

It was a life changing night. Being in a photography pit, in-between the artists and the audience was such a rush. You are permitted the first 3 songs or 10 minutes, whichever is less, to shoot and then you are ejected by security. You also get a minute before the act performs, but you never know what the lighting will be until they start.

I knew that I had to cover another live show ASAP and learn as much as I could about the best methods. Madness had gone really well, but I had got lucky with the lighting.

A reporter from the Essex Chronicle called and asked if I could cover the story of a radio station receiving its FM license. Not the most exciting of stories but as Chelmsford is the birthplace of radio, it was enjoyable. It was unpaid work but I asked if I could get access to Brownstock, a festival with big names taking place later that month. 

I shot the story and Brownstock was a go. I went prepared with as many batteries, SD cards and Red Bull as I could muster. Bassment Jaxx and The Darkness were the headliners, and both were superb.

I took time to photograph the crowds and get loads of group shots to make a gallery for the website. Brownstock was a great experience and acclimatised me to festivals, which I wasn't familiar with. Apart from one day at Reading Festival in 2003. But System of a Down performed that day so my memory is very hazy! 

Soon after that assignment I was asked to cover a much more serious story. A young pregnant lady was murdered by her ex partner and there was a service in her memory taking place. The paper had been invited to help raise awareness of domestic violence.

This was my first time being involved in such a sad story and, as always, didn't really know how to approach it. But I never wanted to say no to an opportunity as I had built a good relationship with the editor over many months, so I agreed. The family and friends of the deceased were very welcoming and I was proud of the article that followed.

Chelmsford City Radio receives its FM license
Chelmsford City Radio receives its FM license

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Bassment Jaxx - Brownstock Festival
Bassment Jaxx - Brownstock Festival

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Bassment Jaxx - Brownstock Festival
Bassment Jaxx - Brownstock Festival

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Chelmsford City Radio receives its FM license
Chelmsford City Radio receives its FM license

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View of the pit at V Festival main stage
View of the pit at V Festival main stage

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View of the pit at V Festival main stage
View of the pit at V Festival main stage

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The paper was also very happy with it and said they owned me one.

"What about V Festival?", I asked.

V Festival had been around for years and always had the biggest acts of any festival in Essex.

In 2015 the line up included Tom Jones, Stereophonics, Paloma Faith and Kasabian. It would be epic just to be there, but with a press pass would be the dream.

 

Two days later I got the response. It was a go.

A lot of friends and family criticised me for working for free, but I saw the bigger picture. It was experience and I was building relationships with professionals I had no other way to meet. Plus getting access to places and events that would cost a lot of money was a big deal, especially for someone who spent years earning minimum wage. (When I was a projectionist aged 17 I earn't £4.50 an hour!) A pass for V Festival was vindication for my approach.

 

I made notes on my settings for Madness, Bassment Jaxx and The Darkness. I read as many tutorials as I could find and practised some low light shots at home.

Soon the weekend arrived and I headed out for Hylands House, Chelmsford.

 

 

On my arrival I spoke to a steward and was directed to the press entrance. I received all my passes and showed my credentials. I was lead to a waiting area and found myself standing with the T4 team from Channel 4. Shortly after all jumped in a Land Rover for a ride to the press area.

The first 30 minutes there was a good indication as to what a surreal weekend it was. I'll never forget being driven around all the backstage for the first time. If I was a mechanic, I would liken it to the first time you stripped a car. I could see all the inner workings and there was an atmosphere to the place I couldn't describe. Electrified is probably the best word I could think of.

The press tent was adjacent to the main stage and was buzzing with activity. Journalists writing blogs and articles, photographers editing and festival staff coming in and out. There was also an unlimited supply of alcohol. Some not-so-subtle bribery!

I had access to the public area too, so I headed out to get some general shots and meet up with the editor, who was a lovely chap Paul Dent Jones. I thanked him for he opportunity and returned backstage to start shooting the acts.

I spent the day riding around in golf buggies, meeting other photographers and photographing music legends, including Tom Jones. It was one of the best days of my life.

The photography pits were extremely loud and the sound systems were so gigantic the music went through you. You can hear everything and nothing at the same time. It's like nothing else on Earth. The 10 minutes allowed feel like seconds at the time.

I left after Kasabian performed and edited for hours. Calling it a night at 4am.

Paloma Faith - V Festival
Paloma Faith - V Festival

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Crowd - V Festival
Crowd - V Festival

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Stereophonics - V Festival
Stereophonics - V Festival

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Paloma Faith - V Festival
Paloma Faith - V Festival

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My first ever paid assignment
My first ever paid assignment

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Holi Festival - Chelmsford
Holi Festival - Chelmsford

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Interview with former owner of Dukes nightclub
Interview with former owner of Dukes nightclub

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My first ever paid assignment
My first ever paid assignment

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After a few hours sleep I returned to Hylands House to do it all over again. As I reached the press area I spotted Paul heading out to the main stage.

"You're back?!", he asked.

"Of course!", I replied. 

As I had been there all day and edited al night, he assumed I would want to spend the day recuperating. Not a chance.

Day 2 was just as great as the first and I had a brilliant time making friends and photographing the acts.

 

A couple of weeks passed and I was cycling to film wildlife in Maldon when I got THE call.

 

"Hi, it's Paul. What you up to? Want a job?"

 

As the paper had a new owner they were switching to a freelance system for photography.

That was where the next 7 years of press work began. My first job was a commercial shoot for a new education centre. I had no idea what I was doing but Steph always reassured me I should just do what I thought was best. Good advice.

 

It took 6 years from Scotland to that phone call. 4 years since the motorcycle shop fire. I had spent all that time trying to learn as much as I could, but that was just the beginning. 

I have covered over 2500 projects to date. Everything from murders, robberies, festivals, charity fundraisers, horse blessing ceremony (yes really) and thousands of other stories.

 

 

That diary was right. It did change my life. Thanks Steph!