Picture of the week: 30/01/23

CAN a walk in the woods help you cope with chronic pain? Gel Murphy thinks so.

And our picture choice this week reflects the way that photography has transformed her life since she stepped back from her teaching career.

FIRST STEPS: walking can offer new perspectives PICTURE: Gel Murphy

As a busy deputy headteacher in London, her working life was dominated by meeting other people’s needs. But in August 2020 the long-term pain stemming from an old back injury forced her to give up her job and retire.

“I loved my job and in total worked 30 years in education,” she says. “Work had always been my crutch and others’ needs mattered before mine. I had no time to exercise; I had medical treatment to keep me at work.”

But chronic pain takes a heavy toll on your emotions and mental wellbeing, she admits. “Every day I suffer chronic pain, pain that is always there, lurking in the background,” she says.

COPING STRATEGY: a woodland ramble can lift the spirits PICTURE: Gel Murphy

And that’s when the great outdoors started to play a bigger role in her life.

“To take control and with the support of my wife, family, and friends, I began to manage my pain, through walking, healthy eating and learning about pain,” she recalls. “I still have pain every day, but I built a toolbox of coping strategies.

“One of these strategies to understand the connection between physical and mental pain is mindfulness and walking.

WELCOME ESCAPE: a footpath near Amersham PICTURE: Gel Murphy

Accompanied by her four-legged friend Obi-dog, and often in the company of fellow rambler and photographer Sue Craigs Erwin, Gel soon found herself spending hours in the woods around Amersham, taking pictures on her phone on the way.

“I walk every day,” she says. “I walk two to three miles in the beautiful Buckinghamshire countryside and take photographs on my iPhone. I don’t have a camera, my phone is my camera.

“I had never taken photographs before. Being in nature helps me forget about my pain and taking that time to stop has opened my eyes to the colours, light, beauty and changes all around.”

FABULOUS FUNGI: nature provides a welcome distraction PICTURE: Gel Murphy

Through a pain management program she was introduced to photographer Jo Bradford , who has written a number of books about smartphone photography.

“She is inspirational,” says Gel. “I was also fortunate to meet her and spend a magical morning taking photos on Dartmoor.

“I never realised the seasons had so much depth, or the magic of the light. Every day is a new picture.”

CLOSE CALL: a clip-on lens displays more detail PICTURE: Gel Murphy

Armed with a clip-on macro lens, she has also started to take close-ups of insects and plants, sharing them on a variety of local Facebook nature and wildlife groups, as well as becoming a regular contributor to The Beyonder’s calendar feature, chronicling the changing seasons in the Chilterns.

Spurred on by the members of an emotional wellbeing group which sprang up online during lockdown – organised by Christine Moran, a mental health specialist and founder of Positive Energy Being – she gained confidence in her photography and the belief that things could and would get better.

“I enjoy walking and being outside,” she says. ” We are blessed living in the Chilterns, an area of outstanding beauty. There are many amazing places to walk, I just had to start.

POLLEN COUNT: a busy bee caught on camera PICTURE: Gel Murphy

“I began walking, while listening to my sad music. It was how I felt: I was stuck in my head. Then with the support, I began listening to the sounds around me and taking time to look at the beauty around me.

“I began to see the beauty of nature, the change in the seasons and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. I took photos of what I saw, I shared them and they were applauded.

“Taking photos of nature has distracted me from my pain and led me to create my blog. I hope my photos make people smile.”

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