Photographer profile - Chris Nowell

Curbar Edge, Derbyshire by Chris Nowell

Curbar Edge, Derbyshire by Chris Nowell - Credit: Archant

Having been severely injured during a Taliban attack in Afghanistan, Chris Nowell turned to an unlikely hobby to help rebuild his life

Chris Nowell

Chris Nowell - Credit: Archant

A military veteran who is registered blind has found a new focus in life by taking up landscape photography. Chris Nowell captures the beauty of the Peak District, just a few miles from his home in Dronfield.

Chris joined the military in 2001 when he was 17 and went on to serve in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was whilst in Afghanistan and stationed at a forward operating base that his tenure was cut short when a Taliban attack from a rocket propelled grenade hit a wall directly behind him, exploding into his tent. The next Chris knew he was waking up in Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, having undergone brain surgery for a fractured skull, before being transferred to Headley Court Military Hospital and then the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. At just 24, his army career was over.

‘The right-hand side of my body was all paralysed with stroke-like symptoms’, says Chris. ‘They taught me how to walk again, up and down corridors, and helped me with simple things like buttering bread.’

Winnats Pass, Derbyshire by Chris Nowell

Winnats Pass, Derbyshire by Chris Nowell - Credit: Archant

After spending time in hospital, Chris returned home to his wife, Claire, and their three young boys. ‘The work they did at the hospital was fantastic but my family realised how difficult it was going to be’ he explains.

‘I’d walk into a room and forget what I’d come in for. My father-in-law re-taught me basic maths and English. We’d plant things in the garden and add things up, and use football teams which I could relate to, which also helped my learning.’

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Chris began attending a centre in Sheffield run by the charity Blind Veterans UK. There he learnt basic computer, writing and independent living skills, including how to use a microwave. At first he would catch a taxi every day before finding the confidence to walk to the bus or tram stop, aided by his cane.

Despite the support of his family and Blind Veterans UK, Chris found it difficult. ‘I was missing the lads in the army and the result of my head injury was making me a bit grumpy and not in the mood for learning,’ says Chris.

Crow Stone Edge, Derbyshire by Chris Nowell

Crow Stone Edge, Derbyshire by Chris Nowell - Credit: Archant

It was Dave Hickey, who taught IT for Blind Veterans UK, who Chris credits for his newfound love of photography. ‘Dave asked me if I’d ever thought of doing photography. I’d owned wind up cameras, which I’d get out when my grandma came round, but that was all. Dave showed me his website and I was instantly impressed with the landscape photos.’

Dave then handed Chris his camera, telling him to come back the next day with some photos. Chris went home and took photos of the flowers in his garden. Dave’s encouragement came not through praise that Chris had completed the task, but through how he could improve what were essentially poor photographs.

‘He was just honest and that was fine!’ says Chris. ‘Dave taught me about keeping the camera steady, getting a tripod and the rule of thirds.’

A few months later the charity ran its first photography week after which Dave asked if Chris, together with another member, would like to run future photography weeks – of which there are two a year – and Chris took on the challenge.

Hope Valley, Derbyshire by Chris Nowell

Hope Valley, Derbyshire by Chris Nowell - Credit: Archant

Most of Chris’ photos feature the ever-changing landscapes of the Peak District. The Peak District was also where Chris discovered his own style of landscape photography, which developed as his body began to heal. He says, ‘Initially, when I put the camera on the tripod I could never flip it to portrait orientation because my hand was like a claw’.

However, it is this that has now become Chris’ signature style, often choosing portrait over landscape formats so he can capture an entire scene.

‘One of my photos of Higger Tor has heather and rocks in the bottom foreground, the hills in the distance and then the sky’ says Chris. ‘If I took the shot in a landscape format then I wouldn’t be able to get all of that in.’

What is even more remarkable is that Chris has no vision whatsoever in his right eye and has lost the peripheral vision in his left. ‘I can step into a location and see an object. The closer I get means I can focus on it a bit more’, he adds.

Whilst he can see through the middle of his eye, it is nevertheless quite blurry. Chris’ preferred time for taking photographs is sunrise.

‘Being from a military background I was always up before sunrise so I’ll get to where I want to take my photos half an hour to an hour before to give me time to prepare,’ says Chris.

‘It’ll either be a place I know or – if I don’t – I’ll have done a recce during the day so I can find any obstacles I might fall over. Then I’ll wait for the light to improve – hopefully!’

Chris is drawn to the higher up places like the Edges of Bamford, with its views towards Ladybower, as well as Crow Stones, Derwent and Stanage. However, it is Derwent Edge that is his favourite.

‘It’s so high up and easy to get there. There are compositions everywhere. It’s heather mad with grouse, birds and hares’ says Chris.

When Chris first began taking photographs he was accompanied by Claire, although ‘she did get a bit bored when I would stop for an hour to take a photo!’ Then he found, on Facebook, another local photographer who also photographed Peak District landscapes.

‘I sent him a message asking if I could get a lift with him one morning. I didn’t get a reply for two to three days, then I got a message saying he was going the next day and would pick me up between 4:30am and 5:30am!’

One might be forgiven for thinking the landscape is quiet as the sun rises but sometimes there can be gatherings of between 30 to 40 photographers, all with their tripods and cameras. As well as running the photography weeks for Blind Veterans UK, Chris also gives talks and workshops to groups including photographic societies, social clubs and WI groups, where he shares his tips for taking photos.

‘Get up early for the best light,’ he advises. ‘It doesn’t work every time but it only takes one photograph to make it all worthwhile. Prepare beforehand – work out how long it will take to get there and that you have access to the area. A tripod is key and as important as the camera itself as it gives a sharper, more stable, more serious image.’

At the time of writing, Chris is unable to take his usual photographs due to Covid-19 but is spending time working on his first book, which will feature woodland photography, adding that he likes ‘the quiet escapism in man-made woodland or ancient forest.’

Chris, together with Claire, is also kept busy with home schooling their three boys and spending time in the garden. As for Chris, photography has literally changed his life.

‘I don’t do it for the money. I do it for the escapism and to get outside. It’s about being positive – I’m still alive and I have my family.’