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‘It was my therapy’: School of Art cancer survivor finds peace behind the camera lens

Photographer Paul Nicol, 47, from Peterculter, underwent a career change after a major health scare.

An inspiring journey of self-discovery is at the heart of photography student Paul Nicol’s project at the Gray’s School of Art Degree Show.

Paul’s exhibition documents a journey from office furniture salesman to a new life behind the lens, via a major health scare.

This is the second year that the prestigious show will be held online due to the pandemic, with more than 150 graduating artists and designers on display.

The 47-year-old, from Peterculter, previously ran a business selling office furniture.

In 2015, he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which led to a prolonged period off work.

Spending more time in nature marked a turning point for Paul, as he discovered a passion for photography and an ambition to make a career out of it.

‘Woodland path, Dunecht’

‘It can be a dark and lonely place’

He said: “During my chemotherapy I’d go out to the woods with my camera and photograph the nature around me – red kites, squirrels, deer, things like that.

“I enjoyed the escapism, and it was also a good way of exercising and getting out of the house.

“When you get a cancer diagnosis the hardest part, aside from the treatment, is the mental aspect.

“It can be a dark and lonely place.

“It’s about finding ways of getting yourself through that.

“And that’s what photography was for me – it was my therapy.

“Prior to my diagnosis I felt invincible, and a bit on autopilot.

“I had my family and my work, and that kept me busy.

“After something like this, you start to question your own mortality and reassess life a bit.

“I had two years of treatment, and six months of that was invasive.

“You don’t feel 100% after that.

“I started working part-time at Instant Neighbour, helping out with the furniture, and doing photography on the side.

“I eventually got better, and through social media I started getting offers of photography work.

“Despite this, I didn’t have the confidence to do it as a job.

“Instead, I decided to enrol at college.

“I did the HND photography course at Nescol, which offered me a route into third year on the BA photography course at Gray’s.”

‘Misty sunrise’

A new career path wasn’t the only positive to come out of recent times for Paul.

A father of three, he became a grandfather during lockdown.

Looking back, he traces the seeds of his photography passion back to the days when his kids were young.

‘It’s addictive, it’s my creative outlet’

He said: “I’ve got three girls, who are grown up now.

“When they were little I bought a digital camera, just to document family life really.

“But it’s quite addictive, and I found myself experimenting with different types of photography – night photography, landscapes, portraits.

“I find it’s my creative outlet, it’s a way of expressing myself and how I’m feeling.

“That’s the pull.”

He added: “I’m really interested in the art element, and being able to represent how I’m feeling.

“But I’d like to supplement that with some commercial work.

“So the idea is to turn a hobby into a vocation.”

For his final year degree show, Paul initially focused his work on social documentary portraiture.

With the onset of Covid, however, he investigated areas closer to home, examining the effect the pandemic was having on the environment around him.

At next week’s Gray’s show, Paul will be exhibiting a personal photography project called ‘Under the Sun and Beneath the Moon’.

His photography features two bodies of work that take a contemplative look at the natural environment.

‘It’s been so hard for students’

The Gray’s School of Art degree show ‘Onwards’ – featuring photography by Paul – officially launches online to the public on Friday, July 9.

It will run for 10 days with an exciting programme of talks, interactive workshops, fashion shows and music.

Visitors will be able to explore an archive of artists involved, with a simple click through of art works, featuring audio descriptions and visual images from all the artists.

They will also have the option to explore the exhibition in a more experimental way, taking them on an immersive journey, navigating their way through a series of 3D virtual spaces.

“It’s been so hard for all the students the last year or so,” said Paul.

“The Gray’s Degree Show is a huge thing, in normal circumstances there would be so many people coming to see it.

“So the more people that can see it virtually, the better.”

To view the show, visit

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