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Zoomflash image from Shunt Vaults on it's closing night

Find what makes your heart sing: How I became a photographer

I didn’t set out to become a photographer. Photography found me as much as I found it.

Mick McCarthy the former Republic of Ireland footballer was once reprimanded by a referee after scything down an opponent long after the ball had gone.

“Mick you were terribly late!” the ref said as he reached inside his pocket for a yellow card to book the center-half.

As Mick rose to his feet he turned to the ref and responded in his gruff Yorkshire accent

“Aye ….I was that ref …….but I got there as quick as I could.”

And so it was with myself and photography.

I cannot remember ever taking a single picture with a camera until I was in rehab at someone’s graduation event. (I was fortunate to spend 6 months in residential rehab for drugs and alcohol recovery) Someone handed me a point-and-shoot camera and told me to take a pic of the leaving group. (How hard could being a photographer be ?)

It was not a work of art.…….by the time the lens stopped zooming in and out and the camera actually took the picture I think the sun had gone behind the clouds, 2 people had looked away and the dog had runoff. I wasn’t that impressed & like any self-respecting technophobe, I immediately blamed the camera. A natural photographer I was not….at least not with that camera.

The problem, as far as I could surmise with my vast experience in this artistic field, seemed to be the delay in taking the picture after pressing the button. Armed with the facts as to what the problem was, I sought out those with just a bit more knowledge in this area as to how I could find a machine with no time delay & thus find the solution. A friend politely informed me to go and purchase a DSLR (whatever the hell that was) This was mid-2009 & I was sober & substance-free for 5 months.

This was my second attempt at sobriety. My first attempt 18 months earlier had not been a huge success but it had led me into the offices of a gentleman called Chris Finch at Southwark Works. His job was getting people who were not working for whatever reason back into employment. I used to go see him from time to time and we would chat and I would go through endless psychometric & aptitude tests, some of which I would answer honestly …….& others out of humour and wishful thinking! CF was a bit of a photographer himself as it turned out.

He also suggested I go do some voluntary work at a place called Shunt Vaults ( A eclectic amalgam of Theatre Company/Night Club/General hub of Creative Anarchy) under the arches in London Bridge. This was my introduction to the “World of the Arts” It was awkwardly wonderful.

Art installation: early photography at Shunt vaults by photographer Martin Lea
Early Photography: Art Installation at Shunt Vaults London Bridge
zoomflash photography image of shunt vaults london bridge
Early photography: Zoomflash image from Shunt Vaults on it’s closing night

During the chats with Chris Finch for some unknown reason, he guided me towards the creative path whilst I, in my infinite wisdom, felt that I should probably head in the care/support/counseling direction. He would listen patiently to me as I muttered on about how I felt I might be good at this old listening lark & would then say to me in a kind and gentle fashion that I shouldn’t rule out something creative! It would appear that CF could see certain things in me that I could not see in myself ……..or maybe my creative answering (& by creative I mean not strictly honest) of aptitude tests was leading me there?

In the centre of the Shunt Subterranean Universe was rather a large bar ……..the kind of bar that serves alcoholic beverages. It wasn’t the place I started drinking again nor as far as I can work out the reason why either.  I think in some small recess of my mind I wanted to believe I could drink socially. If I could sort out the usual external suspects (flat, job, girlfriend, social life, etc) then all would be well.

It didn’t quite work out ….or more accurately my attempts at social drinking turned out to be a total unmitigated disaster!

And so to detox……eventually….& to Rehab in Camden.

Now as fortune would have it my personal keyworker in Rehab was an incredibly loving (yet also hard as nails) French lady called Suzanne who kept going on at us about finding something that made our hearts sing.

Well, it sounded good….but it’s kind of an abstract concept, and well ….what was she on about? Towards the end of my rehab when I heard this phrase I used to employ my excellent nodding dog skills to feign agreement and cover my inability to comprehend this mythical activity/behaviour/purpose for living.

…… back to the DSLR ……..

So after finding out the solution to my artistic (actually the cameras technical) shortcomings, I searched high and low, ok well I went to the second-hand camera shop in Camden, to purchase the tool which had no time delay: a Canon 350D. Not a bad starter camera to learn photography.

Armed with my new weapon of choice I now needed to learn how to operate the damned thing.

On leaving Rehab I lived in North London in a shared house. I needed to find new ways to fill my time. I started to explore new areas of life (which was pretty much all areas.) Could I find a way of living life sober and substance-free?  As well as attending a 3-month aftercare program back in South London I also signed up for some courses at City Lit. My inner wisdom (still infinite at this point 😉 ) guided me to psychology & counseling classes. I was still heading down the care path & I had my first voluntary job in Islington where I was helping to rehouse the homeless. It was fantastic & I loved it. I was helping others & also discovered that there are many different ways of becoming without a place to call home. Simultaneously I was still popping in to see Chris Finch and he was still encouraging me to explore my inner creativity. (Why oh why was he STILL going on about this?) It transpired that CF was rather a good photographer himself.

I started to slowly teach myself how to use this beautiful piece of far eastern engineering. I continued my counseling course too. Out of the blue, someone offered me a free holiday to Croatia for Christmas in 2009. How could I turn this wonderful (& most importantly free) holiday down? I could not.

In order to get into care work full time, I had to attend college to study a Health & Social Care Course and organize myself a work placement. As I headed off on my holiday to Croatia……or Bosnia as it turned out (still totally free though) I had my college course planned for January and my work placement was almost organized too. It was in a move on house for other people in recovery right on the other side of London. However, it did just happen to be run by a rather cute young girl. I can assure you that my motives were definitely honorable & work-oriented……..hhmmmm well …..isshhh.

I had the best Christmas ever in this far off land with strangers who accepted me completely for who I was there and then, although when we landed at Dubrovnik and then transferred to a minibus called Paddy Travel & people started to say the Hail Mary I thought I had been kidnapped by some kind of cult. I hadn’t.

Upon my return from this holiday, I was due to start my college course ………that was the plan & I thought it rather a good one.

However, it did snow rather a lot in Bosnia that New Year & also rather a lot back in London too.

B.A. Cabin Crew decided that was the time to stage a walkout strike too. How dare they?

By the time we arrived back in London, it was too late to confirm the work placement and to start the course. At the time I was livid ……all those plans just fell by the wayside as did my intentions for the girl.

It was the best thing that could have happened.

What to do next? After all, a man without a purpose is like …….well you know …a man without purpose!

So I enrolled at a short photography course at City Lit in London to learn about these funny functions that a camera displays & also just started wandering around North London taking pictures of anything and everything that grabbed my eyes.

One fine evening down a side street just off Covent Garden I sat in a room with a bunch of other camera owners of mixed ability eager to master my strange mechanical best friend. This whole business of photography was quite straight forward, wasn’t it?

The first thing I learned was that I’d paid over the odds for the camera!  I spent the introduction to the class imagining how I might go back to the shop to be refunded the extra amount I had paid (& just a little more too & just a little more & a bit extra too.)

Coming out of my Terminator phase, as I now like to refer to it, we were introduced to how a camera functioned & I prepared myself for being shown how I could press the shutter release button and not only would it take the picture instantly but also everything (& I do mean everything) would be in focus.

As I sat there I learned instead that it can take a quick picture with some bits in focus (shallow depth of field) or it can take a looooooonnnnng exposure which would allow many things to be in focus. (larger depth of field)

This was not what I was hoping and indeed expecting to hear. My wonderful (though now understood to be overcharged & therefore very expensive) new toy could do either one thing or the other. But not both!

It’s fair to say I wasn’t the happiest bunny in the bunny kingdom when I learned this bit of information. I did my best to conceal my disappointment …..but a red face and steam exiting from my ears probably gave a bit of the game away. There was more to this photography than I imagined.

What was I to do?

Eventually …after some time, more days than minutes, I conceded that I had to operate this thing within the laws of Physics and the Natural world. It was a bitter pill to swallow but it seemed unlikely that those laws were going to change any time soon. I had to adapt or find some other use for the Canon. And besides, after having paid over the odds for this thing I was damned sure I was going to get my money’s worth.

And so my journey to becoming a photographer slowly developed if you’ll excuse the photo pun (it’s the only one I’ve used so go easy on me) on the streets of North & Central London ……oh and on a few trips back to the wonderful world of Shunt too.

I also went on an intro NLP course too where we imagined what our future lives and selves would be.

As part of this course, I was questioned on what I was going to do all I could say was “something creative” At that stage I didn’t think of being a photographer full time. When asked to select a colour for my Timeline (an imaginary thread into the future along which I was to travel) I chose orange. I wasn’t far enough along the road then to call myself a photographer.

Later when it got to developing a brand and a logo I did a shoot at home just photographing smoke to capture the effect. For some unknown reason, one of the images came up as orange with LightRoom. Out of that anomaly I created my logo. It was another of the magical moments of synchronicity that continued to happen.

I cannot remember how soon after those courses took place that I realised photography was my calling.  I was just walking along the street practicing my photographer skills taking pictures. It felt like I had a new set of eyes that God had given me. It just hit me that this was what I wanted to do full time, for a living, not just a hobby ………

And so I decided that I, Mart, was going to be “a photographer.”

It wasn’t the way I expected it to happen but I had discovered, in photography, my purpose.

I had found something that made my Heart Sing!

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I am a portrait photographer from London UK, who takes professional portrait & headshots of people for business and personal use. I am also a London event photographer covering all types of events from small private gatherings to office work parties, large festivals, and conferences.