From education to employment

Photographer finds new focus as he graduates with university degrees at 77

Bryan Lewis

A photographer who left school at 14 has described returning to education and graduating from the University of Chester with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in his 70s as beyond his “wildest dreams”.

Bryan Lewis, who is 77 years old and from Heswall, Wirral, said he always felt out of place at school. However, achieving a Bachelor’s in Photography and a Master’s in Fine Art – the culmination this month of eight years of part-time study – has been both a “life-changing” and “life-saving” experience.

Higher education was a turning point, Bryan explained, with the decision to study at university, coming at a time of crisis in his life. He had been hospitalised with heart issues, followed by a stroke one month before starting university. Bryan said: “My world was falling apart. The University of Chester gave me something to look forward to.”

This, he said, was an optimism education had never provided before. Following tragedy in his childhood and moving from country-to-country, schooling was far from easy.

“At the age of four, my older brother died and soon after I found myself whisked off to Brazil, as my father was assigned a job there. Education was in Portuguese and difficult, although I ended up translating for my dad.

“My mother and I returned to England after about two years and my education changed again. I was always a square peg in a round hole; my education was difficult as I didn’t fit in so I left school with nothing, effectively at the age of 14.

“From there, I worked in a hospital X-ray department, then moved on to work for Kodak after which I moved to the University of Liverpool, managing the Zoology Department Photographic Unit, until I took early retirement in 2000,” he continued.

Taking evening classes to gain A Level and City and Guilds qualifications, Bryan was able to take the step into Higher Education.

He recounted his nervousness at embarking on university study after his early experiences and more than a decade after retiring, as well as the challenges he encountered, but how determination and support pushed him on.

“Initially it was a challenge to be back in education, it hadn’t worked when I was a child so how would it be now as an adult? How would a 70-year-old fit in with young students? It was daunting to start with, but I came to love being with the students and helping them with my technical experience.

“Every day at university I have learned something, even just having lunch and chatting with other artists and tutors adds to my experience and knowledge. The learning is in the whole experience and not just in lectures.

“Unfortunately, during my studies I needed two surgical procedures – totalling ten hours – on my heart, but managed not to miss any studies. However, then my Master’s was interrupted by COVID and other health issues. Losing the thread, I found it hard to get back into the swing of the course for the final year. I guess it was sheer determination to finish what I started and hope I would succeed, and the ability to study part-time was a life saver for me, literally. I have only praise for the tutors, especially the programme leader Maxine Bristow for pushing me, and enabling me to reach this level, without their dedication I could never have gained this success.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would have a Master’s degree, as a child my education achieved nothing, everything I have was gained after my school days. It is still a shock that I have achieved this.”

He added that the annual exhibitions to showcase the students’ art and focusing his artistic outlook were highlights of his studies:

“As a photographer, I have covered most subjects – portraits, weddings, events, model portfolios, industrial, landscape – I never really managed to concentrate on one subject. For the most part my work was traditional and lacked something although I didn’t know what. This all changed when I began studying for my Bachelor of Arts; my eyes were opened and my work had direction. My style now is photographing what I feel, not simply what I see, capturing the light and aura of the subject, not just recording the detail.”

To anyone who would like to take up a university course later in life but may be apprehensive, he said: “Do it anyway. Yes, it is daunting, especially for me as I have always had difficulty fitting in. But I discovered it to be a life-changing, life-saving experience and I wish I could do it all again.”

On his next steps, Bryan added: “I would like to exhibit more of my work, and the ideal would be to put something back into the University, to say thank you for what everyone has done for me. With 40 years of working in the photographic field, I would love to be able to pass on some of that experience to the students.”

Bryan, who is turning 78 this year, will also be carrying out duties in his role as a Freeman of the City of Chester, an honour that goes back several hundred years in his family.

Dr Maxine Bristow, Associate Professor in Art and Design at the University of Chester, said:

“Though often self-effacing, Bryan demonstrated everything that you would be looking for in a student – a passionate engagement with his subject, an openness to new experience and eagerness to learn, a generous spirit and gracious and polite demeanour…and an extraordinary level of resilience. His success on the Master’s is a remarkable achievement and something in which he should take great pride.”

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