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Paul Sanders: Behind the Lens
29 May 2023

For this edition of Behind The Lens Shrewsbury photographer James Warman ventures further afield to uncover the story behind Paul Sanders' still-life photos.

This is the third in our 'Behind the Lens' series of articles by Shrewsbury photographer James Warman showcasing some of the many great photographers in our county.

Please allow me a small indulgence for this next edition of 'Behind The Lens' where I interview 'local' photographers. Paul Sanders isn’t exactly local, in fact he lives in Kent, but his story is so inspirational it would be a crime not to include it here. Actually, as you will discover later on he does have a link to Shropshire, albeit a very tenuous one. So tenuous I’m almost embarrassed to mention it.

To define Paul’s photography is almost to do him an injustice. He shoots landscapes but he’s so much more than just a landscape photographer. He shoots still life but his images speak of emotions that aren’t normally evoked from that genre. Paul describes himself as a Fine Art Photographer, and I guess for someone who almost defies definition, that comes pretty near.

Profile shot of a man smiling

Paul was born and grew up in Nuneaton in the Midlands and it was his father that got him into photography, but in an indirect way. Mr Sanders senior was, and still is an amateur photographer. I guess like most photographers he got a bit precious about his camera and he wouldn’t let the young Paul use it.

However, Paul had different ideas.

When his parents were out doing the weekly shopping, Paul would sneak into their bedroom and take his dad’s camera out of its box. He would then proceed to rewind whatever film was in there to safely remove it, replacing it with his own black and white film stock (which he would later develop himself at school), and off he’d go.

So carried away was he with taking pictures that often it would be the sound of his parents car pulling up that would send Paul running frantically back to the bedroom to return his dad’s camera, first making sure to return the original film and wind it on to the correct frame.

Although Paul didn’t always get it right, and for years Mr Sanders believe he had a faulty winding mechanism in his camera as he periodically got double exposures. I asked Paul if he ever told his dad about his secret and maybe put his mind at rest about the camera’s 'intermittent fault'.

“Sort of. Many years later I gave a talk at his camera club where I recounted this story, my dad was in the audience. He found it very funny, although his photographer friends have never let him forget it.” Paul explained.

Black and white photo of a boat

As Paul’s schooling was coming to an end and the inevitable question “what do you want to be?” was asked, Paul was in no doubt.

“I want to be a photographer,” he would tell his teachers, the career’s advisor, his parents, in fact anyone who’d ask. But he always got the same response, “that’s not a proper job”.

Undaunted, Paul pursued various options to realise his dream, including a short spell at art school (“I hated art school” he exclaims).

Eventually he teamed up with a fellow photographer from Coventry and they headed off to Spain to work as fashion photographers.

“It was great! I was 18, making money as a photographer, shooting glamorous women in exotic locations. I was having a wonderful time!”

But all good things must come to an end, and the need to earn a steady wage saw Paul return to the UK this time working as a news photographer.

“It was about 1991 and I got a job working for the Daventry Express newspaper. I loved that job, starting each week with a blank page so to speak and having to find the images, and then to see your work in print.”

Paul clearly excelled at this and he soon landed himself a photography job at a large news association in Birmingham, one that had affiliations with our very own Shropshire Star (there’s that tenuous link I was talking about…).

From there he worked at the Manchester Evening News, Reuters, and it wasn’t long before he secured a position at the international renowned Times newspaper in London.

Black and white photo of buildings either side of a stone slab path. There is a handrail down the centre of the path

“I worked hard, wanting to prove something to all those people that said I couldn’t be a photographer, but I was also dealing with imposter syndrome so I guess I was proving something to myself as well.”

All that hard work paid dividends when a couple of years later he made Picture Editor for The Times, responsible for images across both the paper itself and the supplements. Typically he was seeing in excess of 20,000 pictures come across his desk every day.

“I still felt like an imposter, so I worked even harder than before, getting by with just two hours sleep a night.” Paul explained. “I lived off coffee and chocolate, and I would cycle the 26 miles to work every day. But this was full-on, eyes popping out of your head cycling. I used exercise as self harm.”

Looking back Paul knew things weren’t right but at the time he tried to ignore the signs: “I believed that if I thought about it, it would make it real, so I didn’t try to think about it,” Paul explained.

Then one day Paul gets a call to say one of his photographers, who was in Zimbabwe had taken his own life… As Paul was telling me about this I sensed that it was something that still affected him, and certainly back then he felt responsible.

It was sometime after this that Paul experienced what can only be described as a nervous breakdown.

“I was walking through St Katherine’s Dock in London where our office was based when it felt like I hit a wall. I couldn’t walk, I could hardly breathe and I just collapsed to the floor.”

What followed was three months of treatment initially in a central London hospital and then with a psychiatrist before he returned to work.

“Three months wasn’t enough” Paul explained. “I would sit in meetings but not be able to follow what was going on because of the noise in my head. So in 2011 I decided to leave. The 1st January 2012 was going to be a new year and a new start.”

But Paul was still struggling.

“I spent my days walking the street crying. My marriage was over, I was trying to sell my house and I needed to find another job, but I didn’t do any of that.”

Paul felt he had lost everything, and so one day he took himself off to Beachy Head with the intention of taking his own life.”

“I had it all worked out.” Paul explained. “I took my camera and tripod so I wouldn’t draw suspicion to myself and just waited until no-one was around. Whilst I was waiting I accidentally dropped my light meter and it fell over the cliff. Seeing it smash on the rocks below brought me to my senses and I just collapsed and started to cry. I couldn’t even do this properly, I thought to myself.”

Paul is eternally grateful of the stranger who saw him in this distressed state and went over to help him.

During the subsequent treatment Paul received he underwent a series of therapy sessions to talk about his feeling. But Paul felt they weren’t really helping, until one day he took in the photos he’d been taking at the time.

Black and white photo of a flower

“I found myself buying flowers, I don’t know why, I just liked them and I liked looking at them. After a while I felt some of the flowers looked like me, or at least how I felt, so I would photograph them. My therapist encouraged me to take more shots like this as they spoke more about how I was feeling than I could actually say with words.”

This is where Paul’s story turns around.

Since those dark days Paul has developed his own style of calm, reflective and mindful photography, initially as part of his recovery and later to help others. He regularly runs mindful photography workshops, gives talks and every Friday at 9am he does a Instagram live-stream (something I especially enjoy) talking about exhibitions, recommending books, reading poetry and imparting words of wisdom.

Paul has also teamed up with the Kent branch of the mental health charity MIND to run a photography workshop called Minds Eye, which has proved to be very successful.

His whole approach to photography is less about technical excellence or the latest gear, but more about a holistic approach, noticing the world around you and taking joy from the small, otherwise unnoticed moments you observe.

I urge to all to head over to Paul’s website www.discoverstill.com to see his images for yourself. They are incredible in their own right but even more so when you know Paul’s story.

His website also has details of the workshops he runs (Cornwall and Northumberland) as well as links to his social media pages. I also recommend you checking out his Instagram live-stream on Fridays, as it makes a great way to end the working week and you don’t have to be a photographer to enjoy it.