A Photographer’s Health is in the Balance


I like to think that my health is something that I take seriously but I’ve definitely learnt over the years that being a photographer can be detrimental to your long-term well-being. During my assisting days, many of the photographers I worked for had back issues but I just felt that they were not looking after themselves. An extreme example is the still life photographer I assisted for a week, shooting a top-end wristwatch catalogue in a windowless 20′ x 20′ black box of a studio, where each set-up would take about five hours of painstaking attention to detail. By the third day, the photographer could not get up off the floor because his back had seized up on him and another assistant had to be called in to help out.

It wasn’t until I started shooting a lot myself that my own back issues started kicking in. There’s something about holding a camera up to your eye that is just plain bad for you, with your shoulders tensed up around your ears, the neck tilted up at an almost 90 degree angle, and your spine curved in an extremely unnatural s-bend. During those crazy busy periods, it doesn’t take long before your whole physical structure starts to teeter on the edge of an abyss. Once you have experienced the feeling of your spine being made of glass, you really understand the fear of crashing down and splintering into a million tiny pieces.

And that’s just what happens when you’re shooting. We mustn’t forget all the post-production, the hours sat staring at the computer screen. It doesn’t matter if you have the most ergonomic office chair that money can buy. Apart from what it does to your eyes, you have to think about the effect on your insides. There have been times where I have spent over two weeks getting a series of images ready for a client. It may start with 10 hour days, quickly shifting up to 12 and, by the final stretch, you’re doing 16 hours a day, including weekends, trying to be finished in time. Obviously, I’m talking about the worst case scenarios, but they do happen. I’m lucky that I’m not one of the ones that suffers from migraines during these mammoth sessions. It got to the point where my options were to either fall apart beyond repair, or to do something about it. I’m going to put down a few of the things I do that have helped me. Hopefully, someone out there will take some of it on board and introduce them into their own working lifestyle, sooner rather than later.

By my workstation, I have two things, a balance board and a length of cord with beads on it. The board is right next to my chair, the trick is to remember to get up often enough to get on it. Check out Youtube for some simple stretch exercises. I’m not talking about getting a sweat on, just stretch out those muscles and joints! Balancing on one leg, sticking the other leg out in various directions as a counterbalance, bending the knee, rotating your ankle; if you’re not bothering anyone, bounce a ball off the wall whilst balancing, to get those muscles moving instinctively… Something, anything to get that blood flowing through that numb bum down to your legs.

The string is for your eyes. I actually have a leather cord, just because it’s nice. The cord needs to be long enough to thread a pea-sized bead at 30cm from one end, another bead at 60cm and the third bead at 90cm, with enough cord left over to tie a loop on the other end. Hold one end of the cord up to the tip of your nose, loop the other end over something so that you can keep the string taut in front of you. Make sure that when you are looking down the length of the cord, you are looking towards a neutral background, not something aggressively bright. Then randomly focus on one, then another bead. Do this for a couple of minutes, a few times a day on a looking-at-the-screen-all-day day. Your eye muscles develop a kind of lazy muscle memory from all the staring at a point the same distance away and this exercise helps to avoid this becoming a longterm problem. Another good eye exercise is to stand a metre away from your window, focus on something in the distance (again, with a neutral toned background, nothing too bright), then focus on a mark on the window. Repeat. It works the same way as with the beads-on-a-string idea, just over a greater distance.

Outside the office, I do several different types of exercise, mainly because I know that I do not have the knowledge necessary to do a full body workout in any one particular discipline. I swim, I gym, and I try not to run too often as it impacts my lower back if I do too much. If I just went to the gym, I’d end up bulging in all the wrong places. If I just went swimming, I’d bore myself to tears.

But there is one thing that has kept my body the way it is today and it is all down to one person. She may be surprised that I am singling her out for special mention, but that says more about her nature than anything else. She would prefer to say that it is all down to the effort I put in. Whatever the reason, go back and have a look at the portrait at the top of this article. That is Tarja Nyberg. She takes two lessons a week at Shanti Yoga school here in Helsinki and I try as hard as possible not to miss a single one. She has no particular discipline she adheres to, borrowing happily from various elements found in yoga, Pilates, Alexander Technique, dance exercises… and blending them all together into a potent mix. As I’ve got older, I’ve found that it’s not so much muscular strength that is important but the flexibility you have with that strength. And she makes you work! No matter how fit I am, I can always feel it the next day. Obviously, not everyone can make it to Helsinki. I’m lucky that I found the right person to suit my needs. Get out there and find your own! There must be others!

At the end of the day, you have to listen to your body. I’m now going to get up and get on my board. Happy balancing!

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