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© Douglas Kurn Photography

The Picture That Changed My Life

Jeremy Smith on a photograph that embodies a microsecond of existence yet also a whole lifetime of success, failure, ignorance, enlightenment and resurrection
"I remember every breath of that early revelation and like many revelations and life-changing moments today, it came via email. And what I saw made me cry."

Jeremy Smith


The following 10 performers, scientists, artists and political icons have all been famously defined by a single, iconic image: Albert Einstein, Raquel Welch, James Dean, Betty Grable, Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, Che Guevara, Farrah Fawcett, Audrey Hepburn and Salvador Dali.

Think of Monroe and you can immediately visualise her standing across a ventilation grate, her dress blowing up. Think of Hepburn and she has a cigarette holder perched elegantly in her fingers, and think of Albert Einstein and he’s playfully sticking out his tongue. You may not be familiar with all these individuals’ fame or achievements, but you will, undoubtedly, be familiar with these portraits.

Why? Because these are pictures that define so much more (a whole universe more in fact) than the two-dimensional profiles they present. I, thank god, am neither famous nor, sadly, an outstanding talent, but I do share something in common with these icons of science, art, cinema and music: I have a photograph. As part of a new series of features for OX Magazine, I will taking a look at those pictures which have helped sculpt local people’s lives. In my case, a photograph that embodies a microsecond of existence yet also a whole lifetime of success, failure, ignorance, enlightenment and resurrection. It was taken in June of 2016 and has, quite simply, changed my life.

There is great speculation, yet its precise inspiration remains obscure. Not that it especially matters: “a picture is worth a thousand words” simply endures as one of life’s great truisms. But until June 2016 it held little personal relevance. It was a Monday morning, and save for the fact the sky was blue and a slight chill lingered in the air, it was ordinary. I was about to be photographed and sporting a wardrobe I had spent more than a week clinically appraising. Not that it was a fashion shoot or anything so alluring. Just a shoot of me attempting to own, rather agreeably, my recent disability.

In my head, of course, I envisaged it as infinitely more profound: a statement, if you will, of everything I had fought to overcome since falling so gracelessly 18 months earlier. You see, the slip, the trip, the tumble of 40 feet which had left my frame so scrambled had left me wheelchair-bound (and that, trust me, was an unimaginable bonus – it had looked for many months as if I might remain bed-ridden). But I didn’t, I’d persevered and I was proud of what I’d achieved. But ‘proud’ perhaps in a way that was slightly atypical. I hadn’t wanted to use sport to redefine my rehabilitation, as so many spinal injury patients do. I wanted to use attitude, and I don’t mean defiantly or grittily. What I wanted to do was nail my colours to the mast sartorially.

Even I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. Spinning in my head since the early weeks of my trauma was the (doubtless morphine-induced) sense that my journey to recovery was to be as aesthetic as physical. Yet I couldn’t then (nor do 16 months later) crystallise what that meant. It was just intuitiveness without form or substance. However, on this particular morning I had been more doubtful than excited. I had explained to photographer Douglas Kurn the ‘statement’ I was after (and yes, I now cringe at how pretentious I must have sounded). He in turn had simply acknowledged my grand ambition by readying the location (Oxford’s Bodleian Library) and appraising my physical prowess.

Clearly, I could stand but for seconds rather than minutes. And to complicate matters even further, I wanted to cross my legs. I think we both knew from a clinical perspective that it was unwise but I was adamant it would pictorially translate as ‘rakish’ and felt buoyed by my outlandishly arrogant percipience. And so it was after several false starts, spasms and near falls that Douglas’s camera came alive.

Naturally, my perpendicular fragility allowed for a window of maybe only a few seconds, but within such a constrained time frame, Douglas invented, initiated and improvised blurrily. I’m guessing this shot took only 10 minutes from start to finish and although quietly confident about the result I expected, I was depressed too by the sudden, all too apparent naivety of my design. After all, how could I hope that such an everyday morning could be transformed into something so visceral and life-affirming?

Indeed, that is how sceptical I remained. Not cynical or pessimistic, but frustrated and impotent by the sheer folly of what seemed such an illusory goal. Heck, if I couldn’t put into words the sense of what I so desperately wanted to project, how could I expect Douglas to capture it? Not that I had long to wait…

I remember every breath of that early revelation and like many revelations and life-changing moments today, it came via email. And what I saw made me cry. Openly and unapologetically. It was me alright, but as I’d dreamt me – stylish, savvy and oh-so-chipperly defiant. And today, almost 10 months on, it still makes me cry. Appropriately, there are no words that can capture my joy.

Pictures? Yes. Plenty of them, which explosively chart the recapturing of dreams, hopes, and faith (in me). But none that will ever match this one, defining millisecond out of 475,000 (approx.) grasped, lived, and wasted hours. Douglas Kurn’s photograph quite simply embodies the best of me. It’s truer and more honest than any epitaph (one doesn’t even need to look closely to see the vanity, the arrogance, the childlike dream to better myself ), and for that I will always be eternally grateful.


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