For former Army combat medical technician Mark Dawson, looking through the camera lens is not just about taking the perfect photograph.
It also helps him to deal with some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Taking a photograph keeps you grounded and in that moment,” the 32-year-old from Glossop, near Manchester, said. “When you are looking through the view finder and looking at the people in front of you, you are not looking at that picture in your mind.
“If you get an amazing photo, you are then on a high as you have achieved something that’s good instead of concentrating on the bad stuff.”
Mark Dawson trained as a photographer after he was medically discharged from the army in 2012 after a 12-year career. Through Help for Heroes, he received a £3,000 grant to buy the equipment he needed to set up his photography business.
His talents have been recognised by the charity as he has voluntarily worked on several photography projects for them.
“Help for Heroes has given me a platform to display my abilities,” he said. “Without their help, I would not be as accomplished as fast.”
Mark took part in a Help for Heroes-run dance photography course at Tedworth House Recovery Centre and even won the UK Highland Photographer of the Month for March 2015 for a photo he took during the workshop called Possessed. He also won the Daily Telegraph Big Picture photography competition in 2013 and 2014.
“Receiving the awards, there was a mixture of disbelief and sense of achievement. I was cynical about my abilities so for someone else to recognise what I do was a good feeling,” he said.
He was also commissioned to take a photograph for the BBC programme DIY SOS, which saw derelict houses in Manchester transformed into homes for veterans. He took a photo of a horse to hang above the bed of veteran John Borge, who also suffers from PTSD and was given a house on the street.
Mark, who is married to Natalie and has an 11-year-old daughter called Leah, joined the Army in 1999, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He served with Three Army Corps at Wattisham and the Defence Diving School in Portsmouth. For the last two years of his career, he transferred to the Royal Army Veterinary Corps as a dog trainer. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 2010.
He said: “Being a medic, I had an awareness of what was happening but it came to a point where I had no choice but to go to a doctor. It was due to my experiences of being a combat medic and the things I saw.
“When I left the army, I felt I had no support and I was just dropped like a rock into Civvy Street. I fell through the net and was not put on the recovery and resettlement pathway,” he said. “For the best part of a year after leaving, I was just wondering what to do with my life and nobody was giving me any help.”
Mark then got in touch with Combat Stress and did a six week therapy course. While he was there he found out about Help for Heroes and the Band of Brothers network, which provides life-long support to those with a career limiting/ending injury or illness attributable to service.
Through Band of Brothers, Mark was able to go on the Help for Heroes Freedom Trail expedition in the Pyrenees and recently on a Sports Recovery surfing trip to California.
He said: “Operation Surf was very intense. I had never even surfed before but by the end I was managing to get myself up on the board with 10ft waves. It lights a fire in you and you have to react to it. You cannot just sit in your rut.”
Mark said the support he has received from Help for Heroes has helped him expand his career, which in turn has helped his mental health. Since launching the business, Mark has photographed weddings, commercial modelling, celebrity events and even Royalty.
He said: “Help for Heroes has given me financial support but it’s also being part of a bigger family. They have allowed me to volunteer for work on projects and that means my portfolio is supported by Help for Heroes and I have attended events I otherwise would not have done.”
Mark next hopes to take part in the Help for Heroes Pathfinder course, which helps wounded, injured and sick veterans find a new fulfilling future outside of the Armed Forces. It provides them with the skills, knowledge and confidence to launch a new career, as well as providing them with an industry mentor to turn to for advice.
“I’d like to do the course so I can see if I’m going in the right direction with my photography business and to get advice on how to make my career more sustainable,” he said.
He also teaches photography classes to other veterans and runs a Facebook group called Armed Forces and Veterans Photography for those who want to learn photography skills.
Bryn Parry, CEO and Co-founder of Help for Heroes says; “Help for Heroes is proud to be supporting Mark’s genuine talent which has given him a massive boost in skills and confidence. Mark’s accomplishments are huge and he is going from strength to strength.
The nearest Help for Heroes recovery centre to Manchester is Phoenix House Recovery Centre in Catterick, North Yorkshire.
Anyone who served in the Army, Royal Navy, Royal Marines or Royal Air Force who needs the support of Help for Heroes Phoenix House Recovery Centre in Catterick can self-refer by calling 01748 834148.