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From Net-A-Porter PR Director To Wildlife Photographer: Why I Drastically Changed Career In My 40s

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Photo: Courtesy of Jane Wynyard
Earlier this year, after a decade of working in the glamorous world of fashion magazine PR, I made one of the toughest decisions of my life – to quit my job and step into the unknown.

I vividly remember the day I resigned – hands shaking, palms sweating and my boss’s surprised face as I handed her my resignation letter. But I couldn’t ignore the voice in my head anymore – the voice that was telling me I was on the wrong path and I was running out of time.

Yet I might never have made the leap had it not been for a series of heart-wrenching, life-defining experiences that changed my perspective.

Before I quit, I had managed PR for some of the world’s most famous fashion magazines. I mingled with celebrities, wore luxurious clothes, received exclusive invitations to high-profile events, travelled the world and even partied with Idris Elba, Duran Duran and the cast of Game of Thrones. I had the job every girl dreams of and, for a long time, was swept up by the glamour of it all.

But then tragedy struck and the world I’d built around me began to crumble and fade.

In 2013, my stepbrother was diagnosed with cancer aged 52. Married with two children, a keen kite surfer and skier, Marc had an infectious grin and a warm personality. He ran a successful dentistry practice in Christchurch, New Zealand and had recently married the love of his life, Brigette. Together they were living life to the full, with ski trips to Japan and surf holidays in the Pacific Islands.

One morning in the shower, however, Marc discovered a lump in his testicle. A follow-up scan showed the cancer had spread to his brain. The outlook was grim. I’ll never forget my parents’ small voices down the phone from New Zealand as they broke the news. I got on a plane the next day, to be with my family.
Marc died in May, only eight weeks after diagnosis, at a hospice with Brigette and his children by his side. We were all completely devastated. This larger-than-life, athletic, happy, lucky-in-love person was gone; his time on Earth had suddenly ended in a tiny room in a Christchurch hospice, on a cold autumnal morning.

The shock of my brother’s death was the first time I’d ever felt truly bereft. Any tears I'd cried previously were nothing compared to this. His death, not only unfair, also brought me face-to-face with the reality of my own mortality and the fact that life was unbelievably short. And that realisation left me panic-stricken. I had so many things I wanted to do. Most importantly, I dreamt of doing something more creative and meaningful with my life, such as returning to journalism (I worked as a journalist in my 20s) and developing my passion for photography. But what if I failed? What if I was no good at it? Because of that fear, I quickly squashed the little voice in my head urging me to change direction.
I’d been in magazine PR for seven years when Net-A-Porter’s Porter magazine came knocking. The thought of working for a visionary luxury digital company like this was too appealing. I’d spent my whole working life in PR to reach what I regarded as the pinnacle of my career and I couldn’t turn the offer down. Marc’s death still weighed heavily on my mind but I compartmentalised it so I could focus on my new role.

At first I loved the job and the buzz of the business. I travelled to New York and Paris and worked long hours to make sure I delivered everything on time. The workload was intense but I was determined to prove myself. I was giddy with excitement at the glamour, culture and vision of the company and thought I would never leave.

All that came crashing down in August 2015 when, eight months into my new role, my cousin contracted sepsis, also known as blood poisoning. Her injuries were so horrific and life-changing that it made you wonder just how much a human being could endure. Liz, who is like a sister to me, had just turned 40, was relishing her life as a new mum to her 11-month-old son and had started a new role at Oxford University where she worked as an Egyptologist, when the illness struck.
The sepsis spread through her body like wildfire, causing absolute devastation. I remember going into the ICU ward to see her. Her arms, legs and face were jet black and her eyes yellow and jaundiced, like a patient suffering from the plague. That vision will haunt me forever.

Liz miraculously survived but had 10 major operations in 12 months, including amputation of both legs below the knees and nose reconstruction. The biggest loss were her hands, so badly damaged that they curled inwards like hooks, a devastating blow for someone who had spent much of her career drawing hieroglyphic texts in ancient Egyptian tombs and temples. Overnight, she went from an able-bodied, active and career-driven mother and wife to a woman with serious disabilities, who relied on everyone for support. She could no longer ride her bike to work, climb stairs, feel sand beneath her toes, change her son’s nappies or feed him – all the things we take for granted. It was so cruel, so brutal and so unfair.

I tried to carry on at work as best I could but the wind had been knocked out of my sails. The lovely shininess and glamour of the job had been a welcome distraction when Liz was in the ICU, but as the months wore on and I spent every weekend at the hospital, I knew it wouldn’t last. I found it hard to pitch a magazine to journalists or to get excited about the latest pair of designer shoes while my own cousin was lying in a hospital bed about to have her legs amputated. I felt overwhelmed by the brutality of life versus the consumerism at work. I felt like I was failing both my company and Liz.

Here was another stark reminder that life is so incredibly short. The little voice in my head was now yelling at me to leave and I realised I had to step out of my comfort zone and follow my heart. I had to do it, not just for me but also for Marc and Liz.

It was a tough decision. I was scared to leave my safety net, especially at my age (47); scared to leave my company, the friendships I’d built in the office, the regular paycheque and perks of the role. Who would I be without Porter on my signature? It took me seven months to make the leap and I did a lot of soul-searching, read lots of books and blogs, bored my friends to tears with endless "what ifs" and even attended a course in Italy called Fuck It – Do What You Love (look it up, it’ll change your life) before I actually plucked up the courage to resign.
I knew I’d made the right decision when, half an hour after resigning, I found out I’d been nominated for a Daily Telegraph travel photographic competition. I was even more blown away when two weeks later I was offered a once-in-a-lifetime photographic internship with Save the Elephants in Kenya. If that’s not the universe patting me on the back, I don’t know what is.
So in a fortnight I am off to Africa to photograph researchers, anti-poaching units and elephants for Save the Elephants in Samburu, Kenya, and to work with wildlife in Namibia. I plan to return to London in 2017 to work as a PR consultant, photographer and writer and am already doing pro bono work for a number of charities, including FilmAid, the UK Sepsis Trust and Plastic Oceans, so things are on track. My incredibly brave cousin – who returned to work part-time last month – and I are also hatching plans to work as ‘Activist Cousins’.

My life is about to change completely. I will be in Africa, far away from the world of fashion, and I have no idea what will happen – but I know it will be OK. I’ll always look back on my career so far as a positive and fun experience but, for now, I need to focus on the things that really matter to me: saving elephants, making a difference in the world, spending time with loved ones and following my heart.

Life is just too short for anything else.
www.batteredpassport.com
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