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Photography: Therapeutic work of sights and insights

04 June 2021

Steve Radley is a priest and a photographer, and served as a military chaplain in Afghanistan. He describes experiences that have influenced his work

Stephen Radley

Sunrise, Ouse. “My father died on 12 April 2020 from Covid-19. This is an image I took on the anniversary of his death, this year. I took a sunrise picture at the same time last year, but this image is more complete, showing a wider vista, and the colours are more saturated. Time provides healing, but can never be rushed”

Sunrise, Ouse. “My father died on 12 April 2020 from Covid-19. This is an image I took on the anniversary of his death, this year. I took a sunr...

I WAS introduced to photography when I was eight by my dad. He had a darkroom, and the process of developing film was quite magical to me as a child — watching pictures I had taken appear in the developer.

As a teenager, I had some anxiety and a belief that God was somewhat boring, distant, and not interested in me. My mum was a wonderful Christian influence, and faithfully prayed for me as a child and teenager. Her prayers were answered when I made a Christian commitment after my 17th birthday.

I studied at agricultural college, and from there joined the community at Lee Abbey to work on their estate. It was during my time at Lee Abbey that I felt a call towards ordination.

When I was ordained, the one thing that I said I would never do was military chaplaincy. Towards the end of my curacy, I felt the call to military chaplaincy — perhaps God’s sense of humour at work. Most of my pastoral ministry in the military was spent in the UK, but I deployed overseas on several occasions.

Stephen RadleyCreative birds. “I love the new life of this time of the year. Matthew 6 implores us to watch birds, and ducklings stick together and seem to watch out for each other. I love how they seem to run on water if they fall behind, to keep up with the others”

Of these deployments, each lasting several months, the two that had the most profound effect on me were the second Gulf War in 2003, and a later deployment to Afghanistan in 2011-12.

My eyes were opened to the sheer destructive might that we have in the West. But it was walking the streets of Kabul, in Afghanistan, which helped me to see in new ways. Smelling and seeing the poverty that war creates was sobering.

There were to be many deaths in and around Kabul during my deployment, and at times those foot patrols could be frightening.

Central to our safety on those patrols was something that we called “being aware of our surroundings”. I think this is a better name for what therapists call “centring in the present moment”. We were not concerned about the next street that we would be walking in a few minutes’ time — in the future. We were focused on the place we were right now.


WHEN I got home to the UK, I struggled. I found it hard to go into places with lots of people. A trip to a shopping centre was a disaster. I found the choice, the affluence, and the number of people overwhelming.

But the flip side to my mental struggle was a realisation that I noticed the beauty of life in new ways. The people of Afghanistan were some of the most beautiful people I have met, and I realised that there is a beauty in all of us, when we look. I found I noticed nature in a way that I hadn’t before.

We often talk about the limiting negative aspects of trauma, but it can lead to growth, as well. For me, it led to something that the psychologist Richard Tedeschi called “post-traumatic growth”.

Stephen RadleyAstro. “The movement of the stars above my house. A camera can reveal that that which we think to be unchanging is always in a state of change. So often we fear change, resting in the comfort of our certainties, but change, for me, is where we grow as people, and should never be feared”

Although trained in combat first aid, I never treated a dying soldier, as many have, but I provided pastoral support for those affected by the deaths during my time in the Gulf and Kabul. I saw some of those attacks unfold in our control room. Many tears were shed in my chaplaincy office for those who were not to return; my own tears were shed on my own, at night, into my pillow.

When I got home, I realised that my experiences, which no human should experience, had enlarged my view of the world and the precious beauty of life. My study of photography transformed the camera into a wonderful tool, helping me to slow down and see the world in new ways.

I studied for an M.Sc. in war and psychiatry at King’s College, London [KCL]. At the time, KCL were undertaking some neuroscience research looking into the brain patterns of people who meditated. This was my first introduction to the word of mindfulness and its associated health benefits (although my mum taught me to meditate when I was a child).


A FEW years later, when I left the military, I had the opportunity to study for a diploma in professional photography. I had always focused on the technical in photography, but the diploma encouraged me to notice and understand light, moment, and composition.

This centres us in the present moment, and I realised the potential for photography, with a little teaching, to be a great vehicle into mindfulness.

Stephen RadleyTulip. “There is a beauty in this flower wilting and dying. So often, we would throw a cut flower out at this stage, but life has a circle that we are impoverished if we ignore and if we fail to see the glory through death”

My experience of war left me with a passion for helping people to find peace by seeing in new ways. Peace, for me, is described in Isaiah 11, where we read “The wolf lies with the lamb . . . they will neither harm nor destroy.” It is a place of such self-love that we are able to respect and love others unconditionally.

It is not some utopian state where we all believe the same thing, but a place where our behaviour is kind, and we always seek to understand and support the other. As we do this, we discover that there is more that unites us than divides us — and, as we discover this, we are released from fear and discover the beauty of peace and life lived in all its fullness.

I think the most important step is to slow down and listen to one another and to nature. Growing up in the Lake District, I have always had a love for the outdoors and fell-walking, but I could no longer walk past a dew-filled spider’s web reflecting the warmth of the morning sun or a fragile plant growing in a hedgerow without stopping to marvel at its wonder. I heard the birdsong in new ways.

I have an exercise in my retreats and workshops, “listening to an image”. I encourage people to notice what is going on inside them: the emotions and feelings that they experience as they look at the image. By listening to ourselves in this way, we learn something about self, and, often, those emotions connect with other areas of our lives.

As we are made in God’s image, we also learn about God. By sharing those feelings, and talking about the picture with others, we learn something about each other; and that is the process of building relationships. We will each see different things in an image, and I often think of pictures as modern-day parables, in that a picture can speak to us on many different levels.

Photography has taught me to listen to the still, small voice. We can meet God only in the present (lacking a time machine, we cannot meet God in the past or future), and photography reveals God in the detail of life and all its wonder.

People mistakenly believe that a macro lens or magnifying glass enlarges things. In reality, it reveals their detail, and the more detail that I see, the more I stand in awe of God, who created all we see and experience. But photography also helps me move in the kairos moment — best translated, I think, as the fullness of a given moment.


WE OFTEN demonise darkness in the Christian faith, but this is quite wrong. Photography has taught me to appreciate and delight in both light and darkness, recognising that neither can exist without the other, and that both are created by God, and each has a beauty.

Stephen RadleyDew. “This dew was hanging from a web below a security light in our garden. We often miss these small glimpses of beauty when we rush; but nature and God call us to pause, and, within the silence of the pause, we find God”

I feel a deep spiritual hunger in society, and I think that God has given a path back to his and her embrace for those who don’t know this love. That gives us a wonderful missional opportunity, to join in where God is already at work in people’s lives — a bit like St Paul did in his speech alongside the altar to the unknown God.

I think, also, that mindfulness is a rediscovery of our heritage in the monastic tradition, out of which many good things arose, such as our health care (we still call a senior nurse “Sister”: a reminder of the monastic tradition from which nursing arose).

Our minds prefer to live in the past or future. This can be a dangerous place to live, as it breeds anxiety or means that we fail to be grateful for what we have, hoping that we will have more, or something different, tomorrow. When this becomes our norm, we don’t find peace, but mindfulness helps to calm our anxious minds.

Living in the present teaches us to be grateful, but also helps us to understand and learn about one another without judgement. What a gift towards peace in a fragmented society and world, and what a gift the smartphone is in realising this!


The Revd Steve Radley runs mindful-photography retreats through Soulful Vision, and was recently awarded Amateur Photographer’s Unsung Hero Award.

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