This could be anywhere. It’s not…
This could be anywhere. It’s not…
Since my diagnosis for bladder cancer on June 8th 2020 there’s only been two things I’ve not been able to bring myself to do. One of those I conquered last week, when I ate a serving of beetroot. The second I managed today when I went for a run. I first knew that something was wrong with me almost two years ago when after a run on a hot day I pissed blood. The aversion to beetroot is self explanatory.
Cancer teaches you a lot, and it changes you a lot. It’s still there, it’s not gone away. It can take parts of you away. If you’re really unlucky it can kill you, and there’s no shame in that. But it can also give you tremendous strength and focus. What it can’t do is beat you unless you let it. Strap your boots on and take the fight to it. It doesn’t have to be physical, it can be whatever gives you purpose. Put on some good music; there’s little in life that a good playlist won’t improve, and crack on.
Today was less than 5km, but psychologically it was a marathon. Next time will be easier. Cancer may one day rob me of many things, but it will never steal my simple pleasures away. While I can still enjoy suffering and beetroot, there’s still plenty to live for. The harder they come, the harder they fall!
My year this year, 2020, can be summed up by three words all starting with the letter C. Well, four words if you count cats, but no-one wants to read about a middle aged man and his four moggies. Although on reflection, that may get me more followers on Instagram and Twitter, and hey, it’s all about the likes! It’s been a while since I blogged, but today seems like a good day to do it.
Cameras and Covid; there’s the first two. The latter showed the general public what I could do with the former, gaining me a degree of very minor celebrity in certain circles. Nowhere near enough to put me in the jungle, but enough to be interviewed by several publications, have a book out, and have the front page of a national newspaper, who are also planning to feature me in their end of year edition in a feature on people who have had notable years. Thats one way of putting it!
The Queen memorably described 1992 as her annus horribilis. 2020 has been mine, although it’s not been my annus that’s been the problem, it’s been my bladder that’s been a bit on the horrible side. It seems that I can’t get away from cameras. As I wrote in a previous entry, I’m a person who prefers to be behind the camera than around it. The third C, Cancer, means that I have got used to having polite conversations with people, as they insert a long one into my bladder to see what lurks within. Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of anatomy and physiology can tell you that there are only three ways into a bladder; two from the kidneys, and one path that leads from the open air. That’s the one they chose. Lucky me! So this morning, as the urology nurse held my manhood in one hand, and a cystoscope in the other, I learned that the site on my bladder wall where a three centimetre tumour was excised in June looks pretty good, but not too far away from it, another papillary tumour is waving its little fronds around. The fucker! Bizarrely I felt very calm, and I discovered that after the last operation I had a stricture in my urethra which explains why I’ve had to adopt a slightly jaunty angle whilst having a pee. A straight on approach is once again possible!
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for a clear screen this morning. I would however be naive if I said I wasn’t expecting some recurrence. Shit happens! Ultimately I’m on a journey and I deal with obstacles as they arise. If there’s anything this year has taught me about myself, it’s that I really am a stubborn sod. I’ve got cancer, but I’m back at work, I’m riding my bike, I go for long walks, I shoot a lot of photos, I play my guitar, I lead a full life, and I can still pee standing up. I’m the Duracell Bunny!
If I look back on this year, I’d have to say I probably wouldn’t change anything that has happened to me. Sure it’s on my mind all the time, and I mean all the time, but I now know my mind a lot better than I did at the beginning of the year. I processed a photo today that I shot on my first walk after my operation. It was a half hearted attempt at a self portrait. You do a lot of looking in mirrors when you have cancer. They tell you a lot about the person looking back at you. This mirror has a big smiley face on it, and that’s a pretty fair representation of where I feel I am in my life. At two years from initial symptoms to diagnosis, I could be in a far worse position, if here at all.
Keep smiling, and let the good times roll!
Some time in 2000 I was in a bookshop in Kingsbridge in Devon when I spotted a large book with a very distinctive cover by the photographer Chris Chapman, who at the time had a programme on ITV looking at the West Country through the lens of his camera. The book was called Wild Goose and Riddon, and was a stunning documentation of life on Dartmoor. I was self employed at the time, and living a hand to mouth existence, and couldn’t stretch to the £50 needed to buy it. About a month later I decided to treat myself but couldn’t find a copy anywhere as it had sold all of its print run. I decided to do a bit of detective work, and tracked down the author and photographer, who told me I would be highly unlikely to find one as there would be no more printed. I had just started collecting photography books and I was gutted. Two years later I found a copy in America, and paid £80 for it. Finally I had it.
Roll forward to around 2010, I’d lost my business to recession, and had split with my long term partner, and had no money in the bank, and expensive rent to pay. I started to sell possessions including the book, which earned me £180. I regretted it almost instantly. Along with Don McCullin, Chris Chapman is probably more responsible for the way I shoot than any other photographer. To call him a hero sounds a little over the top, but he’s a huge influence. It took me until two years ago to find another copy of the book at a price I could afford without selling a vital organ. I now have around two hundred photography books in my collection, and Wild Goose and Riddon is the prized possession.
This year after having some of my own work reach an international audience, I became friends on social media with a photographer called Helen Duvall. We were chatting on the phone one day about our work when she said she was helping another photographer put a book together. I asked who it was, and unbelievably it was Chris Chapman. I told her the story of the book and my admiration for his work, and she then passed that message on to Chris, who to my surprise, a few days later sent me a very long email congratulating me on my success, and later that week phoned for a chat. I sent him a signed copy of my book, and he sent me a signed copy of one of his. When I was diagnosed with cancer I received a beautifully worded message of support and advice and an invitation to visit him when I was next in Devon.
Last week I went to visit Chris and also met Helen for the first time. We talked, laughed, took photos, discussed technique and promised to do it again. Both I’m sure will become firm friends. He persuaded me to buy a certain lens, and I inspired him to buy a particular camera. This could be an expensive friendship, but it’s good to know that it’s possible to meet your heroes and they turn out to be top notch human beings!
In the classic British tragi-comedy Withnail and I, one of the central themes is the inexorable waiting for something to happen, and a sense of impending doom. In many ways that sums up the post surgical period. People often say that the hardest part of dealing with cancer is the wait for results from the histology department, and that’s probably a fairly reasonable assessment. One of the things that you can never understand unless you are unfortunate enough to have a diagnosis is how all pervasive the presence of cancer is on your being. It is there constantly, lodged in your mind twenty four hours a day seven days a week. It doesn’t matter how strong you are mentally, and I think I’ve coped pretty well on that front, it’s a war of attrition, and it wears you down, bit by bit, just through the act of thinking about it with a sense of expectation. I sometimes joke that I’m a bit like the Duracell Bunny, I don’t get tired. I didn’t, but I certainly do now.
I’m luckier than many. Distraction is a wonderful technique when facing uncertainty, and I live in a beautiful area in a beautiful house and garden, with access to family land and a cottage up in the Black Mountains which is a perfect bolthole to escape to. We spent five days there recently, almost off grid, reading, walking, watching wildlife. We took three of our cats. It was perfect. A couple of years ago I rescued an eighty year old camera from the cottage to prevent damp ruining it. Each time we go up, I use it to document the surrounding area. Perfect distraction.
Last week I spoke to the Nurse Practitioner and the Consultant dealing with my case. Good news. They are confident that my tumour was excised completely, and being the lucky bastard that I am, it was non invasive, meaning that it hadn’t put down deep roots into the musculature of the bladder, an altogether more serious prognosis. Not only is it non life threatening, I won’t be pissing into a bag anytime soon. A big relief on both fronts. It is however a high grade cancer with a significant chance of recurrence anywhere throughout the urinary tract, so with that in mind, I’m booked for a CT scan later this week to make sure that hasn’t already happened. One wait ends, another wait starts. Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. I was offered the choice of a six week course of localised chemotherapy, but after a lengthy talk with the Consultant I declined. When I asked him what he would do in my situation, he said he wouldn’t have it, and that’s good enough for me. Catheterisation once a week is something I was keen to avoid. I do now have the pleasure of a flexible cystoscopy once every three months to check that I’m clear of regrowth of tumours. It’s all glamour, I tell you.
Last week, a month after my last ride, I tested the nether regions and got back in the saddle, and boy did it feel good. Thirty kilometres at a gentle pace, and it felt like I hadn’t been off the bike.. It’s the things that you take for granted that you miss, and it’s those things that are essential for giving you a sense of normality, speaking of which, tomorrow I return to work. I’m being eased in gently with three half days in the first week to see how I go. I was genuinely moved that my colleagues had a collection for me in my absence and raised enough for me to buy a bottle of Penderyn Welsh whisky for myself, and a bottle of gin for Hetty who has been my strength throughout this journey so far, and continues to be so. This is the only chemotherapy I’m considering at the moment!
I’m not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot, but I do feel like I’ve won the first battle in what may well go on to be a long war. As a friend who is a surgeon advised me, live in the moment, and hope for extended periods of peace. This is a life changing diagnosis, but I’m determined that it won’t be life defining. In many ways my condition feels all the more surreal, because although I’ve had a particularly unpleasant surgery, and had a large tumour resected, I have no visible scars. I look in the mirror and everything looks the same. In some ways I’ve improved, as I’ve lost a bit of weight through looking after myself a bit better. What scars there are are hidden, physically, and within my thought processes. I’m the same person, but I’m different. Nothing will ever be entirely the same.
I was talking to a friend the other day who looked completely taken aback when I told her that in some perverse way I’ve enjoyed this process. It’s taught me a lot about myself. Don’t get me wrong, if I had the choice, I wouldn’t choose it, but there is nothing like staring fear in the face to give you a sense of clarity and focus. It throws things into perspective, and certainly makes you reassess what is important in life. You’re a long time dead, so make your days on this earth count. I have a much clearer view now of what I want and need from my life, than I did a month ago, and I fully intend to get it. Every hurdle, every kick in the teeth, every pothole on life’s convoluted and often treacherous highway is an opportunity to grow. This is no different. I just need to remind myself of that when the nurse comes at me with a scope in three months time, and make sure she uses plenty of local anaesthetic, and plenty of lube!
The fight is still on, my cancer journey still needs to be completed. As Withnail would say……”The fucker will rue the day!”
It’s exactly a week since I last blogged about my cancer, and what a helluva seven days that’s been! When I started writing, I decided that the only way I could benefit from blogging was to be entirely honest. That way I could not only help to process my own emotions, but hopefully give others a realistic view into just what a journey this is, should they ever be unfortunate enough to make it themselves. This may make some of you wince, it will hopefully make a few of you laugh, and it may even make some of you cry. Some of the things I’ll describe certainly had that effect on me!
Last Wednesday night, thanks to the counselling sessions I’ve been having, I actually slept pretty well. I woke next morning, the condemned man, Hetty driving me to Newport in Biblical rain and ominous skies. My stomach a churning ball of tension and trepidation. We arrived at the hospital, and because of the Covid crisis, after a long hug and reassuring words, I walked in alone, to check in. Because of the crisis, the trust are shielding NHS cancer patients in a local private hospital, so I was lucky enough to be shown to my room, where I gowned up and waited. The first person to visit me was an ODP like myself, who put a cannula in the back of my hand. I instinctively reached to occlude it as he withdrew the stylet. So did he. We both missed, the dark red blood proving that at least he’d hit a vein. Next was the anaesthetist. I was having a spinal anaesthetic. I knew that. I asked for lots of sedation. He agreed! At this point I was still vaguely in my comfort zone. And then came the surgeon. Very nice, very professional, but don’t test me on what he told me. Now I know why so many patients seem confused when they come to theatre. At this point you more or less go to pieces, even if the exterior seems calm. And then the waiting begins. I was third on the list, and was taken to theatre at around 11.30. I’d been there since 07:00.
I won’t go into the details of the operation too much, there’s no point, but it was a Transurethral Resection of a Bladder Tumour (TURBT). There’s only one way to get large metal tools into the bladder to remove a tumour without going through the abdominal wall and the bladder wall itself. Work it out for yourselves. I had a very effective spinal anaesthetic, I declined sedation in the end, and I got through by using learned breathing techniques, and listening to a mix of John Martyn and The Band. Everyone was lovely, they made me feel safe, and they made me feel as comfortable as it’s possible to feel with your legs up in stirrups, as you lie there wondering how your genitalia matches up to the thousands of others that they’ve seen in their careers. Hey ho! After the operation I was wheeled into recovery, my bladder full of Mitomycin, a chemotherapy drug, to burn away the badness, and minimise risk of recurrence. The nurses knowing I was an ODP, put two and two together and realised that I’d recently published a book about the staff in my hospital during Covid, so I was treated like royalty!
I spent one night in hospital, a large three way catheter inserted, so that my bladder could be flushed of chemicals, blood, and clots. Excuse my French, but catheters are fucking horrible. You feel like you want to piss all the time. And it burns like hell. When Jimi Hendrix pissed fire onto his guitar it looked cool. When I pissed fire into a bag on the floor, the effect wasn’t quite the same. Anyway, yada yada; the next day after catheter removal and proving I could still go, I was let out into the big, bad world. Home has never felt so good!
A week on I can look back and say that in retrospect, I probably underestimated the physical and psychological trauma of that operation. It leaves no visible scars, but it hurts, and it messes with your mind. The first evening at home Hetty took one look at me and noticed I was shivering. I had a temperature. The shivering was Rigors. I was brewing a UTI, a common side effect of catheterisation. Strong antibiotics followed. We nipped it in the bud. I needed Codeine for the pain. It’s a bastard of a drug. It comes with free constipation. I couldn’t go for three days. I weaned myself off Codeine and let the antibiotics reverse the effect.
There are things we take for granted. Continence is one of them. As a man, standing up to pee is another. No way was I brave enough to attempt the latter. The fear of passing out as urine, blood and the odd clot escape you, dragging their razor sharp talons down your urethra made it impossible physically or psychologically. Sit down, breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. Long breaths. Two days ago I stood up. And it all went in the bowl. I was so excited, I texted several friends to tell them! So, back to continence. Netty pants are not sexy. When I left hospital I was given three pairs and some surgical pads to stop leakage. I wore them religiously, the fear of the consequences if I didn’t, overwhelming. I probably wore them longer than I needed to, along with Tena pads, out of sheer paranoia. Yesterday I was feeling strong enough to walk into town very slowly, but no way was I attempting it without the netty pants and the pad. I’m really not that brave.
Each day I feel stronger. I’m just on Paracetamol for the pain, and antibiotics to ward off infection. I get tired, which is to be expected. Today I walked into town again. This time I went commando. Well, I ditched the net and pad, so as good as! I felt liberated. I even made it there and back without needing an emergency pee like I did yesterday. It’s easy to forget how much your self esteem is affected by an operation like I’ve just had. It’s important to regain a sense of who you are. Getting up, shaving my head, trimming my beard, and putting on some decent clothes made me feel like me again. I’ve a long way to go, and until I get the results of the histology back I don’t know how bumpy that road is likely to be. But I’m still up for the fight. In the 1970s feminists burned their bras. Tomorrow, this cancer patient is burning his pants!
I had a colleague in Bristol, another ODP, an Irishman with a twinkle in his eye, a rapier fast wit, and a voice like Terry Wogan on Valium. He was called John Dunne, and he’s sadly no longer with us, younger than me, and taken from this world by the cruel disease that is Parkinson’s. John and I didn’t immediately hit it off. As, a student he found me difficult, a bit cocky, too argumentative by half. He was probably right. John was once teaching our cohort the basics of the anaesthetic machines, and after a particularly heavy night, his somniferous tones explaining the interaction between volatile anaesthetic agents, and the oxygen passing over them, proved to be a more effective anaesthesia than what was on the machine. I nodded off on my stool, almost landing in a heap on the floor. He wasn’t impressed.
By the end of my time as a student, John had warmed to me, and we became firm work friends, bonding over photography and a similar sense of humour. In one of our last sessions together as mentor and student, he took me to one side, and with a serious look on his face, and in a thick Dublin accent he delivered the classic line “I have to say I think you’ve done ok. I’ll admit, at first I thought you were going to be completely shit!”
There is a point to this rambling. I got out on the bike again yesterday, and as I was dragging my relatively unfit arse up a particularly nasty climb, I started thinking about my past, my present, and of course whatever the future holds. My life has been on a bit of a roll recently. I feel happier, more settled, and more productive than I ever have. My personal vision is on track. I used to say the words “Rave on John Donne!” to John a lot; Van Morrison’s tribute to the poet, and John’s misspelt namesake. There is a poem that I remembered from my time at college studying English A level, which I thought was by Donne, and when John and I were contemplating life one day, I quoted its opening lines at him. John put me right as he often did. I was by Keats, and it is as follows:
When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
I defy anyone who has ever been faced with a diagnosis that is imbued with such portent as cancer, or indeed any potentially life threatening condition not to find meaning in those words. Even with the strongest resolve and positivity, it’s impossible not to think about worse case scenarios, even fleetingly. In my heart I’m confident that I will beat this, but I’m also pragmatic enough to know that it might beat me. There is no shame in losing a battle, but we all fear that our work might not be done, we might not realise our potential, hold and cherish our loved ones, slip away.
Today I relaxed. I went for a walk, took a camera, shot a roll of film, and took comfort in the little things that I saw around me; nature and found objects. I came home to find a card by one of my favourite photographers, from a person I only know through Instagram, and a box of films and a card from another photographer and blogger who I’ve never actually met. I’ve had so much support, it’s truly humbling, not just from friends and colleagues, but also from the comfort of strangers.
Tomorrow I go for surgery. My first time. I think I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times I’ve felt out of my depth in an operating theatre. I’m sure at some stage, tomorrow will be one. Midazolam and a good set of headphones will be my saviour! This afternoon I had another counselling session, and it was so effective that during the relaxation exercise, I fell asleep on the sofa. Tonight I expect to sleep like a baby. Whatever tomorrow brings I’m ready. No, let me qualify that. I didn’t go to an expensive and hallowed public school, and I’m not a member of the 1922 Committee, so the thought of strangers attaching barbaric looking metal equipment to my genitals is something I’ll never be really ready for, but bring it on. I’ve got a battle to win. Fetch me my armour!
The human condition is a funny old thing. It’s amazing how quickly we adapt to new circumstances; how easily our minds transition from one state to another. The last twenty four hours has been good. There were even times when the word cancer wasn’t buzzing around in front of my eyes like a particularly malicious wasp.
I took an eighty year old camera up into the foot hills of the Black Mountains and shot two rolls of film. I felt normal, I felt positive, and immersed in something I love, I felt that whatever happens to my body, I’ve still got this.
This morning I rode my bike. It would be cruel of me to let my current state deprive the world of the sight of yet another middle aged man in Lycra, so a quick circuit of Sugarloaf to blow away the cobwebs was good therapy. At one point I even lifted my hands off the bars in the type of victory salute I’ve not done in a long time, and laughed out loud at the absurdity of the rollercoaster of my life over the past couple of months.
I’ve decided that whatever the next few weeks or months throw at me, I’m going to treat this episode of my life as an opportunity. It may well take certain things away from me, but whatever the trajectory, I can grow in other ways, discover new things about myself.
The surgeons, anaesthetists, and medics can take care of my body. There’s nothing I can do about that, I’m in their hands. My mind however is my own, and that won’t be defeated. There will be good days and bad days, but a war is made up of many battles, and I’m ready for them. The important thing is that life has to go on as near to normal as possible. I won’t be defined by whatever it is that’s growing inside me, and I’ll choose those who fight by my side carefully.
This morning in the kitchen, just before I got on my bike, I was rebuked for leaving my dirty coffee cup on the side.
“Why don’t you ever put your cup in the dishwasher? It’s right underneath where you left it!’
“You can’t tell me off, I’ve got cancer!”
“I don’t care! You can still put your bloody cup in the dishwasher”
With people like that fighting beside me, I’ve got a bloody good chance of winning. Today I’m smiling. This bastard will not grind me down!
Yesterday was a mistake. Tuesday I kept busy. I sanded a bench, I played guitar, I did the washing, I busied myself around the house, I processed photos. I kept myself distracted. But not yesterday. Yesterday I dropped my guard. I let the bastard in. I didn’t do enough. I woke after a night of cold sweats, a sure sign that the stress was there below the surface, and let myself wallow. That multi-fronded fucker growing inside me won the day. Yesterday was a mistake.
By the end of the day I decided that I was going to Google what I’ve got, empower myself. I know of course, or I think I do. I’ve seen it before. Hell, I’ve even seen my own. There’s something in the act of sitting in front of a computer and typing that word cancer into a search engine for the first time that could stop an elephant in its tracks. I’m belligerent, I’m obstinate, I’m often pig headed, I’m as tough as old boots, and I’m calm in a crisis……. Yesterday I crumbled. As soon as the first results appeared on the screen, I felt a wave of nausea grip my bowels, the pit of my stomach churning. Hetty, my partner walked in from work, saw what I was doing, and I burst into tears. Uncontrollable sobbing. She held me as I shook, fought for breath, and cried out through a torrent of tears, “I’m scared, I’m so fucking scared!”. Yesterday wasn’t however wasted. I needed to break. I need that cold, hard shot of reality.
There’s nothing special about me. This is a scene played out in thousands of homes every day of the week. Every cancer patient I help to treat has probably done exactly the same, felt exactly the same, howled, and clung to their loved ones. When I get to a point in this journey where I can return to work, I’ll be a different practitioner. Now I’ll have an inkling of just what they’ve been through before they are wheeled into my anaesthetic room. It’s a tough competency to gain.
Today was better. I walked out and sat on a nearby hill and looked out over the town and surrounding hills that I’ve come to love. I took a couple of photos just to give myself some reality, I contemplated life, and most bizarrely, a ewe brought her lamb over to me so that I could run my hands through their fleeces. Can sheep display empathy? Do they know?
This afternoon I did something I never thought I’d do. I had a counselling session over a video link. I started to lay myself open. If I’m to beat this bastard, and I fully intend to I need to not be afraid to be vulnerable, I need to learn acceptance, and from those two will come the strength I need to fight my own personal battle. A friend and colleague gave me some advice the other day. He said “In the times in my life when I’ve been very ill, I cease to be a doctor, and let myself be a patient”. That’s a very difficult step for a healthcare professional to make, but its one I need to take in my own way. To be as strong as I can be I need to accept that I’m vulnerable, and to be strong I need to allow myself to be tough enough to admit I’m scared .
Tomorrow is another day….
We are living through crazy times. Covid-19 swept in around four months ago, pushing everything out of its way, tossed aside on a bow wave of pandemic and a psychological burial of all other maladies. But underneath those choppy seas, life goes on, perhaps as normal, perhaps not.
My journey didn’t start with a piece of cotton wool taped to my arm where a nurse had taken blood samples. There were telltale signs that brought me to this point. The blown blood vessels in one eye, probably as a result of tiredness and a spike in blood pressure indicate that even healthcare professionals feel the stress when they find themselves on the other side of the divide. A salient lesson in empathy. The green bag containing literature and specimen pots, as well as the “Oh so now!” Covid swabs are just a part of what I’m about to go through, but I know all this of course, because it’s what I do for a living. This time I’m not getting paid however. I’m the punter. The patient. The customer. The frightened rabbit being pushed into a room full of strangers. My future in their hands.
I wrote recently in the intro to my book “All in a Day’s Work” of the strains of working in PPE. I said that we all worry about our kidneys because of dehydration. I certainly worried about mine. The dull ache in my mid back, the discoloured urine, the family history of kidney stones. Fate twists and fate turns. It turned out that I worried about my kidneys unnecessarily. Undressing in front of strangers is never fun. When they examine you with ultrasound, stern faced, and then insert a camera into you its even less fun. I’m a photographer. I prefer to be behind the camera, not enveloping it!
The words we’ve found an abnormality stay with you I’m sure. My experience of looking inside other people’s bladders during many years in operating theatres gives me a heads up. There was the abnormality, looking like the type of multi-fronded plant or creature that you see clinging to the side of a rock pool, alarmingly magnified, there in plain view. A tumour.
There is a great deal of discussion over the language used around cancer. I don’t want to hear people sounding awkward when they talk to me. I’d rather they didn’t pussyfoot around me. I’m still me. Spades remain spades. I don’t have the “Big C!”. It’s not “my illness”. It’s highly likely to be cancer and I’m going to fight it, a controversial phrase according to some charities and organisations. My health is now in the hands of experts, and let’s be brutally honest, it’s in the hands of Lady Luck, but my attitude and outlook is my own. That’s my battle, and my arsenal is positivity.
I’d been planning a photographic documentary shoot looking at people living with cancer, but as with so many things, Covid put paid to that, at least temporarily. Ironically it seems I may now be the subject of my own documentary. My name is David, and I seem to have cancer; no more, no less. This is my journey!
Sometimes you go out looking for things, and sometimes the things you want find you. My camera, or at least my favourite camera, falls into the latter category. There are many iconic items in the world: guitarists have the Martin D18 Dreadnought, drivers the classic Porsche 911, writers the Mont Blanc Meisterstuck fountain pen, fashionistas the little black dress by Dior. Photographers have the Leica M3; considered by many the best camera ever made, and voted by eBay and Stuff Magazine, the top gadget of all time. Launched in 1954 it was the choice of many photojournalists, including the great Henri Cartier-Bresson, and one of my major inspirations, James Ravilious. Some of the most famous photographs of the 20th Century were shot on a Leica M3. This is mine, a pristine example from 1959.
For a few years I’ve been regularly shooting and documenting the busy market in the town I’ve made my home, Abergavenny in South Wales, UK. One Wednesday a couple of years ago I was, wandering around the weekly Collectors’ market looking for shots and bargains, when an elderly man who I vaguely recognised approached me, and seeing the Olympus SLR hung over my shoulder, asked “Is that a film camera, butt?”, butt being the Welsh equivalent of mate. I replied that it was, and that I’d recently returned to shooting film after several years of shooting digitally. He told me that he had a lot of film cameras, and started to talk at length about them. Initially my heart sank a little, as I’d seen him previously buying a cheap camera from a stall holder, and I had visions of being stuck for an hour or so discussing Kodak Brownies and other similar cameras. When however he started to list all of the cameras he had, my jaw hit the floor. Obviously a hoarder, with a phenomenal knowledge of photography, his house sounded like a museum, filled with many things that I’d never seen before. I gave him my card and said that I’d love to visit one day just to look at what he had.
Several months went by, and having not heard from him, I had forgotten about our meeting, when once again I bumped into him in the market. This time he was keen to sell me a medium format film camera that he wanted to get rid of, but having recently bought one, I wasn’t in the market for another. A couple of days later I received a text message from one of the stall holders saying that Mike, the elderly gent, was his friend, and he wanted to tell me about some other cameras he was selling. Again I wasn’t in the market for more cameras, but agreed that my number could be passed on. A few minutes later Mike called and said he wanted to scale down his collection, and was I interested. I wasn’t, but curiosity got the better of me and I asked what he was selling. The first two, a Nikon and a Contax, both superb cameras, didn’t interest me, but then he said he had a Leica M3, my dream camera, and sadly way out of my price range. I told him this, but asked if I could look at it, as I’d never actually seen one in the flesh. We made a vague arrangement, but half an hour later I just needed to know how much he was asking, so I texted him to find out. When he responded that I could have it for £750 and that if I wanted it I could pay over three months, I knew I had to have it. I turned to my partner and told her what I’d just been offered, and even she as a non photographer knew that I couldn’t afford to turn it down. I texted again and said that I’d be there at the weekend to look at it.
I arrived expecting to be handed a camera in poor condition, but not only was it immaculate, but it came with its original leather case, a light meter, several books, and another carrying bag. To hold it is to realise why they are so sought after. Modern cameras, even professional spec ones, somehow feel plasticky and cheap. Every part of this is hand crafted from steel and brass. It oozes quality. Leica have said that if their modern cameras were built to this standard, they would have to retail them at almost $30,000!
It’s difficult to explain how it feels to take photos with a Leica M3, but the closest I can get is to say it feels like you are shooting with history. It lends a gravitas to your photography; it’s a talking point when I ask people if I can shoot a portrait. I’ve been stopped in the street when people have doubled back to look at it. Last year I was taking photos of an agricultural show for a local paper when a man caught my eye because I thought he’d make a good portrait. After I’d taken his picture, he introduced himself as Harry, and said it was an honour to be photographed with a Leica. He then called his wife over to look, and asked her if she recognised the camera. She smiled and said of course. She had been Henri Cartier-Bresson’s assistant in Paris in the 1970s. Serendipity…
If I’m lucky, a digital camera will last around five years before it starts to become obsolete. My Leica is sixty-one years old this year, nine years older than me. My eldest son is going to university to study photojournalism; one day it will be his, and if looked after, there is no reason he could not hand it on to his child. It truly is an icon, and one of the very few material items I’d rescue if the house was on fire.