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  • Writer's pictureGabija Steponenaite

Mindful Photography Transforms Desolation into Visual Meditations

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

In the backdrop of the Scottish mountains, one could meet a solitary figure with a camera observing clouds above the rugged peaks or analysing intricate rock formations opened by the receding tides.

For Gary Heiss, 58, photography was a lot more than a pleasant hobby throughout his life. It was his comfort, inspiration, and even a lifeline.

Assisting in crime investigations

After his morning cup of coffee and a quick throw of crumbs to eternally hungry pigeons in his backyard, Gary bikes from Tooting to his office at HM Revenue and Customs in Central London. He spends his workdays in front of big-screen computers analysing ​a cacophony of sounds and ​enhancing grainy CCTV images. Gary is one of four Forensic Audio Visual Practitioners and Digital Criminal Investigation Analysts working in the HMRC in the UK. His job is to clean and enhance audio and visual evidence before it gets presented in court.

“Tax and fraud crimes are being investigated using a lot of covert techniques: investigators might use surveillance cameras or audio recordings. Collected evidence comes to me for review and editing,” he explained.

For more than 22 years Gary has been working alongside crime investigators, yet to the world of the emotionless language of factuality, he was ​brought​t by his love for arts, especially photography.

Gary used his camera as a source of hope during testing periods of life: it helped him cope with divorce and the ensuing ​dark moods by transforming emotions into contemplative images on the transience of life.

Heroes from the fringes of society

Once he was a promising young artist and imagined his life spent in a studio creating vibrant oil paintings. But on the brink of his independent adulthood, he made a life-changing compromise.

When he was a schoolboy, Gary spent long hours drawing in his room decorated with the portrait posters of artist Vincent van Gogh, poet Charles Bukowski, and writer Jack Kerouac.

"My role models were people balancing on the fringes of society. These people had a manic way of living and pushed their limits. Then, I also believed that to excel in art you needed to push your physical and mental limits. All my heroes had mental health illnesses, alcohol issues, and ​did ​not fit ​into ​society. Whether I mirrored them or I associated with ​them, ​similar issues are found throughout my life,” Gary said.

He went ​on to​ study fine art at Farham College of Art, but after six months of studies, he dropped out ​of college. “I wanted to help my mother who struggled alone raising three children. Also, my college friends were not particularly inclined to study,” he said. His parents’ divorce weighed heavily on Gary’s mind, he felt stigmatised and ​outcast​ since the divorce or 'being from the broken home' ​was not acceptable a few decades ago in the UK.

From Fine Art studies to a Perfume Factory

Gary decided to look for a job and eventually found himself working in ​a ​perfume factory Lentheric Morny.

“The first year was a nightmare. It was a complete shock. The worst​. I fully understood that I ​was ​solely ​responsible for my new life at the factory,​” he said. ​

The first year, ​he just tried to adjust and get by in his newly founded life, but during the second year, he started making new friends. It was the seventies and there was a huge movement of creative youth: Goth, Punk, and New Romantics dominated London fashion and music clubs.

A Portrait of A Woman with A Green Scarf

“People were very flamboyant and diverse, and most of them worked in the same factory as I did. They could not get jobs in conventional offices: their hairstyles, tattoos, edgy fashion were not appealing to employers,” Gary said.

He made a very diverse group of new friends and became interested in photography. He even set up a dark room and ran a little photography group in the factory.

But ​one day​ ​the ​factory employees went on strike and Gary lost his job. His next job was at a hospice where he worked as an assistant at ​a​ press and publicity office. But soon he realised that the office job ​was​ not for him and he applied for a degree in photography at the London College of Printing in 1983.

After graduation, Gary embarked on a fun and sunny adventure: he worked as a photographer on a Caribbean cruise ship. Gary’s job was to take pictures of tanned and relaxed vacationers dancing, partying, exploring sunny islands, celebrating birthdays, or getting married.

After a couple of years of cruising around the Caribbean, Gary came back to rainy London. There he​ held a few jobs in photography labs before he was hired by HM Revenue and Customs.

Daily routine and job responsibilities have not always allowed Gary to work on his creative projects. For many years he would pull his camera out just to take some pictures during birthday or Christmas celebrations.

Nevertheless, ​the ​camera ​has ​served a special mission in his life.

Photography transformed hopelessness into art

Before his marriage, Gary lived with his long term partner and raised their two daughters. But the relationship started falling apart. “We split. Years went by and I met someone new. Due to some former family issues ​the​ children moved to live with me. All this happened on the eve of my wedding ​which​ caused a lot of strain in my new relationship,” he said. His marriage lasted four years. It was followed by the ​long months of divorce, and his children eventually went back to live with their mother. “And I found myself completely alone,” he said.

This is when he turned to the camera for the console.

Photography was his escape during the darkest moments in life when hope seemed beyond reach and a sense of despair was becoming overpowering.

“That kind of darkness, this dark energy, was always a part of me. In those moments, it is ​almost cathartic to make images,” Gary said.

When he picks up his camera and looks at an object, a landscape, or a person, he already has a photographic image in his head.

“There is a ​dialogue​ in my head between the real world and the version of that world in my head. I find the process very calming. This is my mindfulness. I am able to capture a moment of life and make it into my little capsules of experiences,” he explained.

Throughout the years, photography became a powerful medium connecting Gary’s inner world with the surrounding world. Gary’s photography evolved into visually expressive language with its unique style where fragile details are juxtapositioned to the wast open spaces.

“Aesthetics is almost always a driving force in my work. For the last five years, I worked mostly capturing transient stages of surfaces. Constant change is fascinating to me. Ageing and the journey through life is part of this process,” he said.

Gary closes his day by pouring himself a glass of wine and listing through photo albums or reading poetry. He is particularly drawn to the underground writer’s Charles Bukowski​’​s poetry that speaks with nothing-to-lose truthfulness about absurdities of life and ​a ​desolate world. Gary even tattooed on his upper arm an image of the poet’s book ​“​Love is a dog from hell.”

Sometimes, when Gary gets out of the ​tube​, he might randomly buy a book or an album from a lone seller displaying them on the pavement by the train entrance. ​“I​ like to be random about things. I try not to overthink these things, I just choose randomly. Like music: the title of the album would be enough for me to buy it. I rely on little triggers that inspire me,” he said.

Gary’s dream is one day to pack his books, camera, and move to Scotland, the land of his love and captivating landscapes. He wants to teach other creatives how to express gentle and piercing, melancholic and fragile, savage and stark beauty ofthe ​human emotions and natural landscapes.

P.S. Gary and I met at Costa coffee shop near Poole, in Dorset. He was heading back to London after the weekend spent photographing in Exmoor National Park in Devon. Our casual chat about photography, Buddhism and crime investigations while sipping coffee lead to a new friendship.

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