Wildlife photographer Michelle Lawford talks about conquering fear

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People often ask Michelle Lawford if she ever gets frightened photographing wild animals. Michelle has stood next to black bears while they fished for salmon. She has remained motionless while wild horses galloped straight towards her. Being out in the wild doesn’t scare her. What really terrifies Michelle is surgery.

Vaccinations – check. Photography gear- check. After months of careful planning for my trip to East Africa, I thought I was 100% ready. An emergency hysterectomy had certainly not been on my last minute list of things to do. Suddenly, with only three months to go, I was faced with a choice- have the surgery or cancel the trip.  


Vaccinations? Check. Photography gear? Check. After months of careful planning for my trip to East Africa, I thought I was 100% ready. An emergency hysterectomy had certainly not been on my last minute list of things to do. Suddenly, with only three months to go, I was faced with a choice- have the surgery or cancel the trip.  

While my mind had been busy planning every detail of my African safari, my body had been silently betraying me. When you wake up one morning with your uterus and bladder between your legs, it’s hard to ignore! I knew I couldn’t bounce around in a jeep for a month like that.  More to the point, I definitely didn’t want to drop my bundle in the middle of the Serengeti. Why was this happening now? Ok, at 57, I’m in the age group where these things can happen, but why now??

 It was May. If I had the surgery straight away, it would be a six -week recovery period before I could start to regain my fitness and then I had six weeks to train for the gorilla trekking in Uganda in late July. Cancelling the trip was never an option. I just had to go for it. 

The doctor was explaining that after surgery, gravity would be my enemy and there was to be no high impact exercise. He cautioned me about not rushing into things like fast walking, driving or pushing a trolley at the supermarket. When I asked him how soon I could start to train for two six-hour treks up a mountain to get to gorillas, he looked at me sternly and said, “I will do the surgery but the recovery is in your hands.”  Ok, so maybe I wouldn’t be as fit as I would have liked to have been but at least I wouldn’t be dragging my uterus up the mountain in a carry bag with my zoom lens. The whole gravity problem, not to mention my unmentionables, was really dragging me down. 

People often ask me if I ever get frightened photographing wild animals. The answer is “no”. I have stood next to black bears while they fished for salmon. I have urinated under a tree that had just been used by a polar bear for the same reason. I have remained absolutely still while wild horses galloped straight towards me. I have been eight hours out on the Arctic ice.  My thermal underwear slid up my arm, causing a small slither of my wrist to get so cold, I thought I would faint, but I stood my ground. 

No, being out in the wild doesn’t scare me. What really terrifies me is surgery. Just how much it scared me only really surfaced when the prospect of immediate surgery suddenly brought back a tangled mass of childhood medical trauma.  Getting out of the way of stampeding hippos was surely easier than evading flashbacks and body memories.

I think part of why I love adventure and physical challenge so much, is to prove that I’m strong and I’m not afraid. As a child, my fragile little body was subjected to many frightening things and somewhere along the way, I think I decided that as an adult, I would never be afraid.  After years of childhood illness, surgeries and invasive interventions, as a teenager, I was still considered by my family to be a sickly child. That’s not how I saw myself. So I trekked mountains in Nepal and the Andes and swam with whale sharks and laughed as I was chased down a road by a hungry coyote but inside, I was still a frightened little girl. Not frightened of animals or physical challenge. I was scared of people. Doctors and nurses. Now it didn’t seem to matter how adventurous I was.  Sure, I wasn’t a bit afraid of hiking through prime grizzly country but if I couldn’t even face a routine surgery, had I ever really overcome my past?


The night before my surgery, I packed a small bag and submitted my latest piece for Travel Play Live. I didn’t know what state I would be in for a while and the next issue would be going to print soon. Even as I emailed off the piece, I had a feeling that what I was going through was actually the bigger story. 

Arriving at the Royal Hospital for Women was weird. Wasn’t it only yesterday I had come here to have my babies? Now I was here for an old lady hysterectomy. The circle of life.  One minute you’re a fertility goddess and the next you’re in for removal of used parts. Lovely. To add a final irony to the whole saga, my daughter (now 21), who I carried home from this place in a tiny pale pink singlet that I still have carefully folded away with her baby things, would be driving me home when I was discharged a few days later. 

Thanks to three emergency sessions of EMDR, I was able to face hospital as a calm adult instead of a terrified child. Rather than unravelling me, the experience has been uplifting. 

 I think our emotional agility and fragility is connected to our innate craving for adventure. Nature is that life-affirming antidote that gets crushed by the vicissitudes of everyday ordinariness. In some way, I think overcoming childhood trauma is a bit like going hiking or kayaking. It’s about tuning in to ourselves and finding out what we need to feel alive and what is causing us to feel dead, lost or afraid.  Telling someone who is terrified that “everything will be just fine” is like telling someone who craves adventure  “ you don’t have the time or the money”.  It’s not helpful. 

The white noise of everyday existence removes us from our atavistic desires and fears while distancing us from our natural habitat. In our houses, apartments, office blocks and shopping centres are we like other animals making the best of a well-designed zoo? In the wild, I believe we are more open, more ready for what might be around the next bend. Venturing into the wild is easier than venturing into the jungles and swamps of the mind. Perhaps the wild can even become a place of refuge from all that we seek to avoid and deny. Exploring, navigating, overcoming and conquering are all activities of the mind, body, and spirit. When we are free to roam the wild, the adventurer and sufferer can both find strength and tranquillity.

The moral of the story?  Face your fears, take risks and for goodness sake ladies, do those pelvic floor exercises!!!!

Author: Michelle Lawford

More information: Wild Photography

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