‘Not only is Brownsea Island a jewel in Poole’s crown, it is absolutely instrumental in me being here at all.’
Photographer Paul Williams is talking about the significance of Brownsea Island in his on-going recovery from the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that saw him make three serious attempts on his life following an incident in 2010 in which he defended four people being attacked by a woman wielding a Samurai sword.
He was a serving police officer at the time, having previously been a mental health specialist engaged in assertive outreach work to find and protect people in need who may have fallen between the cracks in the system or simply not wanted help. Before gaining a first class honours degree in Clinical Mental Health Nursing he had been a career soldier from the age of seventeen and was a Physical Training Instructor at Blandford Camp until a serious injury – he shattered both his ankles falling 100-feet from a cliff at Dancing Ledge – precipitated the end of his military service five years later.
Paul has seen and done much to be traumatised by, but as he chronicles in his first book Wildlife Photography – Saving My Life One Frame at a Time (Hubble & Hattie) has found salvation of sorts in photography.
‘I’m a very driven guy, classic Alpha Male, always striving to be the best in whatever I do, all the usual stuff – PTSD was never something that could happen to me, until it did. You cannot see as much death and destruction as I did and not have to pay the ferryman eventually. What happened with the sword was the straw that broke the camel’s back.’
It cost Paul years of emotionally painful recovery and it wasn’t until he had a breakthrough with a new psychotherapy treatment called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) that he began to make real progress. Withdrawing from the world, he stayed at home, kept away from society – by his own admission he’s still not very good with people – and set about putting himself back together again.
‘I found I liked the company of birds so I put these feeders in my garden and would stand at the sink watching them. I noticed these little mice and voles so picked up my camera and started taking pictures, something that I had done in the military but not a great deal since. I posted a few photos online and got some very positive comments, including from Dorset Wildlife Trust who asked if they could use some of them.’
After photographing the owls at the Lorton Meadows nature reserve – ‘You’re out there on your own at three in the morning and your work is done by eight so it was ideal for me’ – the Trust asked Paul if he’d like to run photography workshops on Brownsea Island.
‘That was about 2016 and things started to fall into place for me. Brownsea is its own beautiful little bubble away from the mainland; it even has its own microclimate. You have to make an effort to get there and the only people there are working for the benefit of the island. I practice mindfulness and seek to live in the now so that I cherish this moment. That becomes a lot easier on Brownsea. Everyone has bills and pressures and things going on in their lives, but when you’re on Brownsea for a day and a night there’s not a thing you can do about them and whose life wouldn’t be improved by sitting with the red squirrels for a while?’
He photographs all over the island and with overnight groups pays special attention to sunrise and sunset. With the weather, the light, the atmosphere and wildlife in a constant state of flux Paul teaches participants to be always on the alert for photographic opportunities.
‘My military training means I’m able to sit for hours in unpleasant conditions just waiting, but ready. It’s a useful skill for a wildlife photographer and I have managed to get some shots that I’m very proud of. I also love macro photography and I’ve explored the very highly technical aspects of what I do – photography has become the outlet for aspects of my personality that mean I always have to strive to be the best in what I do.
‘Interestingly though, there’s no end point – with photography and with my recovery from PTSD there’s always more to learn, I’ll never be finished.’
Brownsea has helped Paul order his life to suit who he is rather than feeling he was falling short because he could no longer ‘fit in’ and conform to social norms.
‘I love travelling to the wildest, most remote locations – places in Sweden or the Scottish highlands, Alaska, the Arctic – yet getting there is incredibly painful for me, being on planes and dealing with airports, and I have to manage myself very tightly.
‘Similarly, there are never more than eight on any of the courses I run on Brownsea, partly so that I don’t become overwhelmed by being with people, but also so that everyone can get enough of my attention. When I get home though I withdraw again and it’s three or four days before I can be with people.’
Paul keeps as fit as his body will permit, doesn’t drink alcohol or caffeine and is vegetarian. He is a practicing Buddhist – ‘Not always a very good one’ – and lives alone as he rebuilds his relationship with his five children and the world in general. Excited by the possibility of publishing a second book he views this late flowering career in image making as a validation of all that has gone before.
‘I can’t change anything that has happened even if I wanted to and my kids have issues with me, understandably, but they’re bright and thankfully I’m still here to tell them I love them.
‘I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m not in a forest any more and the book has been such a positive experience that it gives purpose to all the dark days that brought me to this point.’
• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.