Shooting through adversity! A photographers journey – Peter Walpole.

I have long been a big believer that art can be a great healer. In life we are presented with unique, complex and sometimes horrific situations to deal with, and find a way through, to a better and more liveable outcome. And whilst I acknowledge that it is not always possible, taking up a creative pursuit can be a great form of therapy. Perhaps it is the mindfulness of the activity itself versus the end outcome.  Whilst there is great joy and pride in producing a finished piece of art, the process to get there can be the most satisfying.

For me, after the loss of my wife in 2013, photography gave me a unique way to deal with a part of my grief. And in turn it led me to this community within which I have made some amazing and supportive friendships.  I have written about it before and if you wish you can read about that here.  It has also become an area of interest to discover how others have used photography as a means of therapy, when life throws such high impacting changes at them. I recently had a discussion with Peter Walpole, a fellow member of our Fuji X Aus community, who has suffered a significant string of life changing events in his past.  We discussed his story and how his photography journey changed from before to after that event.  I was inspired by Peter’s story and have shared some of those moments with you all here. 

You began your photographic career in journalism. Can you tell us a little about that journey?

I first worked at WA Newspapers in finance and managed to get a journalism assignment to review a local restaurant. But I had no idea how to use a camera or even own one. I was given a loan camera and one of the photographers showed me how to use it. So my first experience with photography was born, which led to my passion for photography. I took to it like a duck takes to water. It also led to me becoming a food critic and writing for some very well respected magazines and meeting some exceptional Chefs. It also led to the making of many enemies as the pen is far mightier than the sword. As my reputation grew I became more in demand and went from food to fashion and only worked for certain designers – both local and international. If I did a shoot in Perth, I’d only work with one of three make up artists, one hairstylist and certain lighting people who where good at what they did, It was incredible to be able to do something that was second nature and so enjoyable. This ended with my accident, the epilepsy and the back operation. Everything I knew about photography that once came naturally had left me forever.

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You mentioned your accident and epilepsy – something that altered everything in your life. Can you please share with us that time in your life? 

At the age of nine in 1962, difficulties in keeping up with my school class resulted in my seeing a neurologist.  An EEG showed that I was having minor epileptic seizures called Petit Mal, on a very regular basis which only lasted for up to 10 seconds yet caused me to forget what I was being taught. The fix was simple, pop a pill twice a day, advise the school and within a very short time improvement should be noticed and I will grow out of it by my early teens.  All this proved to be correct.  Then in 1991, whilst driving to a shoot, I had my very first “Clonic Tonic” or Gand Mal seizure that resulted in my car running into a lamp pole.  If it hadn’t been in the way I would have ploughed through a number of people at a bus stop on the other side. Thus began a string of events that would change my life to this day.

As a result of the accident, I saw a neurologist and discovered I had there types of Epilepsy: Petit Mal, Absence Seizures( which last for 20-30 seconds) and Grand Mal which all fall under “Generalised Seizure’s” meaning an operation was not an option to fix it. I also ended up with two badly fractured vertebrae.  This left me with extreme chronic back pain as well as severe left thigh pain. Surgery did nothing for my pain, but another problem came out of this. After a couple of months I started to realise that I couldn’t remember anything! People would ask me a specific question about an event that may have taken place after the mid 90’s and I couldn’t remember anything.  It really hit home when someone asked me when my Mum died and I had no idea.

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What impact did this have on your photography career?

What came out of it? Well, for a starter my photographic career was over! People were understanding. But that prejudice towards epilepsy came through like the morning’s first rays of sunlight. All of a sudden they where presented with a different person, someone who was unreliable as I was having regular major seizures and might not turn up. I haven’t worked since that day in 1991. My qualifications would normally land me a job in the blink of an eye, but despite the age we live in, discrimination against people with disabilities is still very evident. I had to rely on my wife and others to drive me as I wasn’t able to drive. And my hands shook so much with the drugs I took, I couldn’t even hold a camera.  I chose a new neurologist and through medication changes was able to bring it under control, with some success. He helped me through bouts of depression and it was he who talked me back into photography in around 2005, as by this time I’d completely given it away. Today my Clonic Tonic seizures are under control but the other two aren’t.

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It was your neurologist who pushed you to take up photography again and they continue to encourage you today. How have you found that experience?

Best thing I ever did was take it back up again. For which I’ll be eternally thankful to my neurologist who first suggested it, and my current one who continues to encourage me. Facebook has allowed me to hook up with different groups, make new friends and I even joined a local photography club last year, which has been a big bonus. It has even allowed me to write this, what could be better. It has allowed me to look at life in a whole new aspect. It has opened my eyes to other subject matters and to look at a person’s face and think, gee what stories those eyes, wrinkles and frowns could tell. Which is why I love street so much, going up to a person, speaking to them, hearing their story and then trying to capture it in a single shot.  And if I succeed, great, as I feel I have accomplished something. Macro is another passion I have. It allows you to see things that you can’t see with the naked eye.  

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You are obviously a Fujifilm shooter now, you are a member of our community and no doubt many have seen your work. Tell us about your use of Fujifilm cameras?

My move into Fujifilm products was out of frustration with Sony. I spoke to a couple of people over here – Dean Knowles and Mike Duffy – both pro photographers and very good.  They shoot with Fujifilm and they had nothing but good things to say. I started to do some research on Fujifilm cameras and lenses and decided on the Fujifilm X-T2, XF16-55mmF2.8 and XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 as my first up purchases. Have since added  the XF56mmF1.2 and a Samyang 12mm. I find them a pleasure to use and even given my chronic back problems, I can walk around with XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 all day.

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Peter, thanks for taking the time to discuss with me your photography and life journey.

Firstly, thank you for allowing me to share my life’s experiences and feelings about how my various health conditions have led me to this point. I sincerely hope that in some way it helps someone else either seek help, recognise the condition or come to terms with an issue that might be affecting their own present wellbeing.  As a result of what I have gone through, had taken away from me, life still continues. Life is not a day to day struggle for me, as I long ago accepted that this is the hand that I’ve been dealt and I have no intension of folding and giving in to it.

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For people that want to know more about epilepsy perhaps to support a family member or college, what do you recommend?

Epilepsy. Some can cope with it, others just need someone to talk to. Others need professional help and some can’t cope at all and simply refuse to speak about it. One in 26 Australians will develop Epilepsy within their lifetime. For those who want a better understanding of it, the best organisation to contact is Epilepsy Australia who have a branch in every state and territory in Australia. Their contact details can be found at www.epilepsyaustralia.net.

Cheers and Keep Doing What You Love

Peter Walpole

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