Back in December we announced our Unsung Hero Award, in partnership with Ripe Insurance. The award is designed to celebrate the hard work and community spirit of people who are using photography for the benefit of others or to help make the world a better place, with the winner getting £1,000 to donate to a charity of their choice (they also received the accolade at the glittering AP Awards on 21 February).
After much deliberation, we are pleased to announce the winner is Simon Wiffen, a portrait and events photographer from Yorkshire. Simon’s son, Ellis, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at three weeks old, which prompted him to do a documentary photography book on people living with it. The book is called 47/A Life with Cystic Fibrosis, and features portraits of 47 individuals – 47 being the median lifespan of people with the condition. For each book sold, £5 is donated to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, of which Simon is a passionate supporter, and it has raised £2,120. We met up with him to find out more.
A lightbulb moment
‘I was really surprised to be named the AP and Ripe Insurance Unsung Hero, I wasn’t expecting it at all,’ Simon explains from his home in Leeds. ‘I’ve had a passion for photography since I was a kid and like a lot of people, I got into it by discovering my dad’s old gear. When I became a dad, I channelled this photographic interest into documenting my kids growing up.’
Simon works as a freelance web developer, and does some commercial work on the side to keep his hand in. Portraits and people shots have always been a passion, hence the decision – following his son’s diagnosis – to do a project on people living with cystic fibrosis. As Simon explains, it was a ‘lightbulb moment’.
‘I had been toying with idea of documenting Ellis’s everyday life, as it involves a lot of medication, treatment, and clinic visits, and at the time I was looking to shoot more meaningful and emotional portraits. Another big goal was to raise awareness of cystic fibrosis. It’s not that common and people are not always aware of the reality of the condition – a lot of times you wouldn’t know somebody has it, and it’s not always clear how challenging every single day is. So I felt this project could be a powerful piece of work and decided to fund it via Kickstarter.’
Hard work but worth it
Deciding to start the book project was the easy part, however, as it proved to be a huge commitment in terms of time and energy. ‘The book took a year of my life. As well as the photography, I had to raise money on Kickstarter, design it, everything, while also working full time. It was not only physically demanding, but emotionally arduous too. As a dad of a young boy with cystic fibrosis, I know it’s a life-limiting condition, and when you meet people further along that journey you become very aware of this. Two people have subsequently died after taking their portraits. So I had some very tough days doing the project, but I always knew it was worth it for the end result.’
As Simon explains, it wasn’t just a matter of getting all 47 subjects together in a big hotel room or similar public space and doing a group shot. ‘People with cystic fibrosis can’t mix with each other owing to the risk of cross-infection so I had to go and visit each one individually. I also had to do this in a specific order, visiting people who were at a higher risk of infection first. I had to clean all my camera gear in between visits, to make sure I didn’t contaminate anyone’s house, and carefully work out the routes to make the most of very limited time.’
Lots of volunteers
Simon got a huge response when he initially asked for volunteers to be photographed for the book, so he decided to focus on three areas: Yorkshire, Lancashire/Liverpool, and the Midlands. He ended up covering about 1,500 miles, with the minimum of overnight stays
Fortunately, this herculean task was well worth it, as the response to the book has been overwhelming. ‘I sent books all over the world, and got a great response from Europe, Asia, the US and Australia. It’s been great for spreading awareness.’ Simon was also featured in the Daily Express, as part of its campaign to increase access to cystic fibrosis medication here in the UK, and appeared on the BBC regional news show, Look North. Following this exposure, he received a photographic commission from the NHS to promote awareness of the need for organ donation volunteers.
We’re sure more commissions will follow. See www.simonwiffenphotography.co.uk
Portraits with power
‘I wanted the images in 47/A Life with Cystic Fibrosis to be consistent, with the same lighting, and everything in black & white,’ Simon explains. ‘There was to be no distraction with colour, I just wanted to focus on the individual and their story.’ He also knew he would be shooting people in a wide range of very different environments, so he tried to travel light when it came to gear.
‘I took all the portraits in the book on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, using a 50mm f/1.4 lens. The background was provided by a black pop-up reflector, and the lighting set-up was very simple – just one speedlight, through an umbrella. This was enough to give me dramatic and emotive portraits, without weighing me down with gear or taking ages to get everything set up.’
Following the travel and the shoot, the biggest challenge was choosing which images to use in the book. ‘I tended to choose the image very soon after the shoot, something which best represented the person I had just met. They’d entrusted their story to me; it is a very personal thing to have your portrait taken and also to talk to a stranger about your illness and reduced life expectancy.’
Simon is a Leeds-based photographer specialising in family, lifestyle, portrait, commercial and event photography. He started a major book project on people living with cystic fibrosis after his son was diagnosed, and it’s for this sterling work he gets our Unsung Hero Award in partnership with Ripe Insurance
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