Award win brings Gloucestershire photographer’s career into brilliant focus

Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 20 November 2020 7:05

You may not know it, but many of the very best news images you will have seen in recent times in the national newspaper, websites or within the county were taken by one man from Gloucestershire. 

We have been waiting for an excuse to tell his story, and with a string of hisphotographs being shortlisted in this month’s Event Photography Awards 2020 (one win, one runner up, one highly commended) we have it. 

His story will ring true with many who are setting out currently, thanks to the pandemic, with nothing more than a belief in their own abilities and a determination to start their own business – except Paul Nicholls has been there, done its and continues to do it.

Pictured: The winning image in the Cultural Category at the Event Photography Awards 2020. Paul's Nicholls image of the Bruce Munro Light Installation. Below, how it was used in The Daily Telegraph

When the bemouth that was the old newspaper industry touched digital and began to turn to sand his ilk – the photographic journalist – were jettisoned by an industry whose business model screamed ‘save costs’.

“I remember shortly after I was first laid off, I was listening to the radio and painting the garden fence when I heard on the news there had been a fire. 

My first reaction was to drop everything and head over there to cover it and get a picture. I had to remind myself that’s not what I did any more,” said Mr Nicholls, 52, whose career began after coming across a camera by chance in time freed up by taking his art exam O-Level a year early while still at Highwood School. 

It was an encounter that began what he might have considered at the time an unlikely relationship, but which led to him working at Peckhams camera shop in Stroud in sales, as well as learning dark room skills and taking pictures. 

Encouraged by then press photographer Matt Bigwood he was taken under the wing of David Ireland at Bailey Newspaper Group, and from a dark room printer quickly becamea staff photographer.


Pictured: Museum of the Moon, at Gloucester Cathedral, shorlisted in the Venues category - where it battled for honours against images of St Paul's Cathedral and one of Sydney Opera House

From there it was Stroud News and Journal, and later the Citizen, Echo, Stroud Life and Gloucestershire Live.

He credits other legends of the Gloucestershire newspaper photographic family – Dickie Besent, Robert Davis, Martin Perry, Simon Pizzey - with helping him learn how to spot, get and turn around a news picture at a time when you could not send an image electronically and when your work was always wanted yesterday by your lords and masters. 

“It was pure pressure and adrenalin - and I loved it,” he said. “There were so many talented people working there.” 

Only when he was laid off, six years ago now, and stood facing the future did he realise his relationships with the camera was a relationship he just could not give up on. Making it pay, identifying a market for what he did in what suddenly seemed like a desert, was the challenge. 

When I heard Benedict Cumberbatch was filming at Gloucester Cathedral, I had the same feeling, but this time I thought ‘why not go and get a picture and see what happens?’,” he said.

“Because I knew the people there and knew what I was doing within 10 minute I had a picture of Benedict as Sherlock Holmes. 

“I thought, ‘why not put it out there and see what happens?’. The Mail and Telegraph took it and I thought, ‘maybe I can do this.” 

This was just the beginning. The industry at the time was bleak. Online was still emerging. There were new photographers coming through and plenty of good, seasoned former staffers still limping along 

“Although I suddenly knew I could do it and make it work, I also realised one or two other thingsI needed to push myself and keep pushing. I needed to become an accountant, to become my own PR company and to build those relationships. They are so important.”

Pictured: The Italian Airforce in action - an image highly commended in the Cultural category of the Event Photography Awards. One of three shortlisted in the category

He was able to develop his business model over time, so PR companies which once hired him because he could get the picture they wanted now did so because he knew what kind of image national platforms needed and could help them place it. 

"When I first phoned the picture desks I felt like everyone else, like I was wasting their time. They get 30, 40, 50,000 images a day from around the world. I had to convince people my pictures were better. 

“Now, because I know them and they know me, when I call up the first thing they say is ‘hi Paul, what have you got?’” 

He learned to identify the quirky, the unusual, the different, to ignore what everyone else was doing, to make his work stand out – and in the case of journalism to find images for stories no one else had.

Pictured above: The camel racing image, shortlisted in the sport category

Everything came together with images like his much-used shot of Hilary Clinton at Cheltenham Literature Festival. National agency photographers were there in force, waiting, but his contacts got him intothe room and he got the shot he had in his head all along. 

“It went into the Mirror and Telegraph (on-line), and around the world,” he recalls. 

As did his pictures of the man with the motorised shed (well-worth a search online for the whole story). 

Since going freelance he has had more than 60 pictures printed in The Times, more than 60 in the Daily Telegraph, similar numbersin other national newspaper and titles, images published world-widein the New York Post, Hello! magazine and this Christmas a typically bizarre ‘mermaid swimming in the Thames’ shot will be in a book printed by National Geographic, no less.

Pictured: In Brand Activations and Experiential the Alpaca Yoga was Runner Up, but won the People's Choice Award in that category

He also focused in on events, of the kind people wanted covered because they wanted their success and the moment to be seen. 

Which is part of the business that has come almost full circle -in a bad way - with the pandemic torpedoing it like redundancy was a direct hit before. 

But now thereis resilience. And while he sadly can’t do anything about covid-19, he has irons in the fire, keeps in touch with key people and award wins like the ones listed above help keep Paul Nicholls name top of mind.

Pictured: Paul Nicholls at Gloucestershire Airport, Staverton

“I think the news industry thought for a while you could rely on a mobile phone picture, but I think the stock of a good picture has risen again and have grown to appreciate it again. 

“What I would say to any young photographers starting out is to learn how to use your camera first. Learn everything about it, so you don’t have to think – you just do it. 

“You have to persevere, but I really enjoy it I am passionate about it. When I have the camera in my hands I don’t need to think about it. While I feel like that, I will keep going,” he said. 

With that he cut the interview short. 

“I have to go. I have to get a picture of an alpaca in a Santa hat.”