“I don’t want people to look at me and think I’m a victim of cancer.”
Those were the poignant words of health care professional and photographer David Collyer, as he talked about his battle with cancer and the fact that he’s just been crowned Documentary Photographer of the Year by the Royal Photographic Society (RPS).
Many of us were first introduced to the surgery worker who was documenting life on Covid wards in a Welsh hospital back in 2020.
It was a whirlwind of a year for David whose life as a photographer changed dramatically when his photographs taken at Nevill Hall Hospital were shared over the UK and the world.
At the time, Aneurin Bevan University Health Board, who David works for, faced some incredibly tough challenges.
The 54-year-old felt he had the ability to really document these changes at the hospital in Abergavenny.
Read more: You can find more of our health stories here.
His role as an operating department practitioner (ODP) specialises in anaesthetics, which means he is able to access areas that many people don’t see. And not just the public, but also other members of staff.
One of his images was even used on the front page of the Guardian, and was subsequently selected as one of the best photos of the year by a leading photography magazine.
What’s more, just before Christmas, David was crowned Documentary Photographer of the Year by the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) after competing against entrants from around the world.
Roy Mehta, photojournalist and RPS judging panel member, said David’s work “offers us campaigning photojournalism from the front line of the NHS during the first wave of Covid. There is an urgency in this work, underpinned by a strong moral purpose.”
David said it’s been completely overwhelming to receive such high praise. In fact, back in 2020, he joked about how limited his moment of fame would be.
Now he’s set to embark on another great photography challenge, as he prepares to document the lives of people who have been impacted by cancer.
Speaking about when his work first hit the headlines, he said: “I remember joking to people saying I will be famous for 15 minutes.
“It was the biggest story in the world and I was documenting history.
“Two years down the line and we are still talking about it.
“My son is a photo journalism student in London, and I was mentioned in one of his lectures. He said it was really surreal. It’s been overwhelming.”
But 2020 was a year of both ups and downs for David. While life was taking so many unexpected turns in one way, he discovered his health had been changing in another.
In June 2020, David was told he had bladder cancer. You can read more about that here.
He said he’s currently doing quite well, but he still has to have regular checks.
Discussing his health, David said: “I’m good. I have been clear for 11 months.
“It’s been a tough two years. I had another small tumour taken out in January 2021. I found out just before the Christmas that I had the small tumour.
“I have not had the all clear, but it’s a very good prognosis. It’s likely to come back, but it’s not 100%.”
When you chat to David it’s clear that he maintains a positive and upbeat attitude.
As well as recently winning the award, he’s been doing some work with Cancer Research Wales to help get people talking about cancer.
David has been keen to share his experiences from quite early on, with the aim of encouraging other people, and men, to feel more comfortable with talking about their health and their emotions.
For this reason he started blogging about it.
David said: “I’m lucky. I’m fairly in tune with my emotions and I can talk about it. Many men can’t.
“I thought if I can help one person come to terms with what they’re going through then that’s a good thing.”
Going forward the plan is to work with Cancer Research Wales by using his photography skills to help.
The idea is to develop a photography project that illustrates people whose lives have been touched by cancer, and to show that they are ultimately just normal people.
He said it’s likely that he himself may feature in the collection of portraits, and it’s clear that he has a vision to create another collection of very poignant work.
“I don’t want people to look at me and think I’m a victim of cancer,” he said.
“If you saw me walking down the street, I don’t look like a cancer victim.
“People who have cancer don’t want you to feel sorry for them – they just happen to be going through a tough time. It’s not like it was – the death sentence that it once was.
“We need to get that message across really – to show people they don’t have to be very, very scared of it.
“These are normal people – they’re just people who happen to have cancer.”
As for the ongoing situation with Covid-19, David said his message to anyone who has any worries about their health is to “see someone”.
He said he admits, due to the pressures that have come with the pandemic, people may be afraid they aren’t going to be seen by a GP, but his message is clear and that’s to always seek medical advice.
“I didn’t see one GP,” he added as he spoke about his cancer diagnosis, but he did speak with various skilled nurses and nurse practitioners during the early stages. He said there are always people who will be able to help.
To find out more about David and his work, visit his website.
If you would like to participate in David’s project please contact Cancer Research Wales or for further information call Cancer Research Wales on 02921 850 252.
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