Bosnia mission led to retirement degree

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THE old woman dressed all in black sat on the steps in front of her hut. She had gathered wild garlic that morning, and she was trying to sell it to anyone passing her gate. A van drove down the road and stopped near her hut. Some men got out, and the old woman hobbled towards them, offering them the garlic. They shook their heads to indicate they did not want to buy any. One of the men opened the back doors of the van and took out a small parcel. He handed it to the woman, who opened it cautiously. There were tins and parcels of food inside. The woman looked at the men, and smiled. One of the men lifted a camera and started taking photos of the scene.

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This was Bosnia, in the aftermath of the Balkan wars that had shattered the region following the collapse of Yugoslavia. The man behind the camera was Dave Coffey, a manager with a pharmaceutical company in Swansea. He was part of a humanitarian mission organised by churches in the city.

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Dave was already a serious, if amateur, photographer. What he saw on that visit, and on other trips to the war-torn country over six years, ignited a passion that would result in him spending three years of his retirement obtaining a degree in photo-journalism.

Dave’s path into retirement has a familiar theme. After 36 years service in the pharmaceutical industry, changes to his role had left him feeling “like a puppet.” When he asked if he would consider early retirement, he was ready to consider it.

“My only concern was, could I survive financially,” he says. We are in the room at the top of his house where he spends much of his time editing the 45,000 images he has stored on his computer. Once he would have spent hours in the dark room he built at the bottom of his garden. Technology has made some things much easier for the dedicated photographer.

“At 62, it would be another three years before I started getting my state pension. But when I worked it all out, it seemed fine. When I actually retired (in December 2006) I accepted it for what it was. I didn’t have any problems adapting to a life without a paid job. I’m a busy person.”

Retirement gave this former grammar schoolboy from Liverpool the opportunity to pursue his photographic passion, and achieve a lifetime ambition to obtain a university degree.

“My family could not even have thought about being able to afford to send me to university when I left school in 1961.”

It wasn’t just his interest in photography that guided his choice of subject. “The photojournalism course at Swansea Metropolitan University was a modular degree. I didn’t want to be writing essays under pressure.”

He started the degree course in 2007, and gained a 2:1 honours degree three years later.  The work he did for his degree resulted in two books of his photographs, retracing his childhood around Romer Road.

Along the way, the knowledge he had gained in 25 years as a member of Swansea Camera Club meant he was able to help many of his younger and less experienced fellow students.

One of them is now a lecturer at the same university. He and Dave meet up regularly to exchange ideas. “There are always new software systems being launched. You never stop learning,” he says.

It is not only alumni that Dave remains in contact with. During one of his visits to Bosnia, he befriended a ten-year-old boy called Daniel. “Thirty years later, we are still in touch with each other. I want to go back soon and photograph the rebuilding of his town.”

Meanwhile, Dave is keeping busy, despite recent operation to remove cataracts from both eyes. A regular swimmer, he also walks daily and works out with weights in his garage three times a week (“They’re not heavy weights,” he points out.)

His next target is to be awarded a Fellowship by the Photographic Association of Great Britain. “I need to select a project, but I’m looking forward to getting on and taking my photographs.”

This is a retired bloke who remains in focus.

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