In the Shadow of Giants

A Photographer's Journey Begins


Peter Pickering

3/7/20245 min read

A lifetime ago, back in the scorching heat of Aden, in South Arabia, my obsession with photography was really starting to take flight. The Sonu Photo Store had become my second home. I was practically part of the furniture. Film, chemicals, paper, an enlarger, easel, clock, developing tank, trays, safelight - you name it, I had it. If it was used in a darkroom, I was probably hoarding it in the bathroom of our tiny flat. The bathroom may not have been roomy, but with a makeshift blackout cloth over the window, it became my first darkroom, my first business venture.

My business acumen? Well, I'd say it was pretty solid for a 12-year-old. I'd managed to set up a decent trade developing and printing photos for my dad's RAF mates. And, would you believe it, I was earning enough to not only treat myself to a weekly splurge on chocolate-covered sultanas (a luxury costing a cool 10 shillings) but also to get around Aden in style, chauffeured in a Mercedes taxi to my favourite fishing spots. It was all rather grand and I have a sneaky suspicion that even my dad was a bit impressed.

"In the untamed playground of my youth, my camera was the loyal companion to my curious eyes, turning schoolboy adventures into timeless frames of discovery."

Peter Pickering

Over time, my darkroom equipment improved. I got my hands on a Durst M600 enlarger and, despite the cramped conditions, I made it work. I learned on the fly, self-taught through trial and error. School, on the other hand, was a whole different story. I'd spend my days doodling images in my textbooks, my mind miles away from the classroom, lost in the darkroom or out shooting.

But let's cut to the chase. The turning point for me was meeting an Army chap named Andy. I met him at Sonu's store. He invited me to his flat to check out his work. And, blimey, his photos blew me away. One in particular, a street portrait, a razor-sharp profile of a bearded Arab, left an indelible mark on me. Then he showed me his camera, a Mamiya C3 with an 80mm Mamiya-Sekor f/2.8 lens. It was built like a tank - a proper professional's tool. I knew then and there that I had to have one.

It took me a few years, but eventually, I got my Mamiya C3. As time passed and nostalgia set in, I even amassed a full collection of Mamiya C series cameras, lenses, and accessories. That level of quality in a photograph stuck with me. The next time I saw something that riveting, it was in the works of Yusuf Karsh, a master of the craft who has inspired me ever since.

Interestingly, just recently, a good six decades since seeing Andy's photo, I've discovered a similar calibre of work in Carol Visser's photos. Carol is an esteemed member of my Cartier-Bresson group on Facebook. She’s not a pro, and she admits she knows very little about photography, but crikey, does she know how to capture a stunning image! Her work takes me back to that initial awe I felt looking at Andy's photo of the Arab and Karsh's masterpieces. Simply mind-blowing.

But let's rewind back to my school days. Thanks to my burgeoning photography skills, I was appointed as the official school photographer. I was the lad behind the camera at every school sports day, and even got asked by the headmaster to take the official class photos. Unfortunately, my school reports weren't as glowing as my photographic pursuits. "Totally wasting his time," one read. "He needs to learn more than just photography," another scorned.

My academic performance was atrocious, a detail still evident when I skim through those old reports in horror. But the real irony? It was those very reports, with their harsh comments, that fuelled my determination to prove them wrong.

That rebellious spirit, coupled with a voracious appetite for learning, led me to not only master the craft but to be sought after for it. My little darkroom venture in the bathroom of our Aden flat wasn't just about earning a few extra bob. It was the foundation of my lifelong journey in photography, a passion that has never dimmed.

In the years that followed, my love for photography took me on many adventures. I became a globetrotter, extensively travelling and residing in various corners of the world, from the bustling streets of Aden to tranquil landscapes. Yet, landscapes alone never captured my full interest; to me, they felt somewhat lifeless. No matter where I found myself, I always sought to capture the human element. 

My forte was portraiture, capturing the spirit and stories of people. I was also drawn to street photography, before I had even come to know the term. My trusty camera was always by my side, each photo I took and each memory I captured was a testament to my dedication, an emblem of my defiance towards those naysayers in school. My rich and diverse experiences deepened my understanding of the world and its myriad stories, all waiting to be told through my lens.

One of the greatest joys I found in photography was its ability to bridge cultures and time. I could snap a picture of a moment, freeze it, and make it eternal. Through my lens, I was able to observe and record the world around me, offering a glimpse into the heart of different cultures and communities.

Looking back, I realise that my journey wasn't just about capturing the perfect photo or learning the technicalities of the craft. It was also about meeting people like Sonu, Andy and Carol, people who inspired me and pushed me to strive for more. It was about challenging the status quo, about proving that success isn't just about getting top grades in school. Most importantly, it was about following my passion and doing what made me truly happy.

In the grand scheme of things, the countless hours spent in that tiny bathroom-turned-darkroom, the relentless dedication, the constant learning, the obstacles faced and overcome – they all shaped me into the person I am today. They paved the way for a career that has not only brought me immense satisfaction but has also allowed me to view the world through a unique lens.

I'm grateful for every step of this journey, from the heat-soaked streets of Aden to the comfort of my own home, where I now reminisce about my old school reports. The rebellious schoolboy who was "totally wasting his time" has become a man with a lifetime of incredible memories captured in photos. The journey hasn't always been smooth, but it's been worth every snapshot.

© Peter Pickering 2024.