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  • Jan-Paul Van Dessel

The invisible work of a role model.

Having worked with and for others for many years of my life, I am approaching the end of my 8th week of working as a Counsellor in my own private practice. I have been reflecting on that whole experience, and I am struck every time I walk into the counselling room I have created within our home, and I must say my instant reaction is one of total appreciation and a little bit of 'wow'. Not because of how it looks and what's in it, although I have to thank my wonderful wife who in her own busy schedule guided me so well in that aspect and which as a result gives the space a real sense of welcome and calm. If you want to see a video intro of the space click here


Part of the 'wow' is for the fact that I have a place that has already become the place that clients are finding a new sense of who they are and want to be, and are developing new ways to understand experiences and traumas from their past and how that does not need to define their future. Without a doubt part of the 'wow' is that I am doing this from my own place of motivation and desire to be autonomous, and to practice and earn a living doing something I love.

That reader is not an accident. Although there is never one single cause or reason in any event or outcome, once looked at closely there will be many parts (lesser and major), some subtle and some obvious. Consciously avoiding the need to describe all of those in my own case just now, I wanted to focus on one of those (for me) obvious elements I have reflected on. That 'element' is in fact a person. My Uncle Paul (Kavanagh), one of my great role models. Being Irish and born in the 1960's, it is not unusual to be part of a 'big wider' family. On my mother's side I have 9 sets of aunts and uncles and on my father's side 2. In total I have 45 first cousins. Every one of them cherished and valued by me. Paul stands out in this moment.


Paul sadly passed away in 2012 aged 82, he aged but never got old really. To his last he remained observant, witty and welcoming - perhaps great traits of a professional photographer and no surprise his career as a photo-journalist and photographer spanned 60 years. If you ever visited Ireland in the 70's, 80's or 90's and sent a postcard (remember those?!), you probably held his work in your hands.


Paul always stood out for me as a role model in my life, and I can only tell my own story of this from my own experience, my cousins could I am sure tell it in a far more biographically correct way! In my earliest years he represented kindness and fun, he had a unique way of ringing the doorbell which he would ring 3 times in quick succession so every time you knew it was him and a race to the door followed to be the first to answer and welcome him. There was something delightful about that sound, which still almost 50 years later has me smiling as I type this.


In my teenage years, probably because my mother begged him so as to get me out of the house!, I got to spend several summers working in his photography studio during the school holidays. I learned so much, and was included in everything from answering the phone, meeting customers at the reception desk, developing negatives in the dark room, 'spotting' the blemishes on any B & W prints and filing/retrieving negatives (literally in the 100,000s!!). Every day I learned something new and every day I felt valued by him (and my cousins who worked there). His daughter Paula has her own well-established photography business and you can visit her website here https://www.pkphotography.ie


I admired his tenacity in creating his own business from scratch, how he travelled to Germany to personally collect his desired camera - not trusting that to be handled carefully enough by any post or courier service. He took real pride in his work, and he instilled that in me by example, not just by instruction. I never once heard him gripe or complain about his work, his mission as a photographer was to deliver on the brief and make the very best of the situation hail, rain or shine. Some of his greatest photographs are those he took when nobody was looking. He would gingerly wander amongst the wedding crowds, quietly snapping the most natural and relaxed poses of people at ease. So too he would travel around Dundalk and Co. Louth and capture 'real life' pictures. Paula has compiled an amazing book of some his work and selected 150 pictures from a cache of half a million which can be viewed and purchased from her website. I own a treasured copy.





So in this moment, I am thinking of Uncle Paul and how he might have felt 8 weeks into the creation of his business 'Glen Photography' circa 50 years ago. I would love to ask him what thoughts were going through his mind, how he was feeling and what his plan for success was. I have a sense he would be saying "I am going to take great pictures, be ready for whoever comes through my door and listen carefully to what they need from me". I never told him he was a role model, and he never said he was, it was what I would call an invisible truth. Perhaps like the bee that can navigate by the 'invisible' ultraviolet light from the sun, even on the cloudiest & dullest day, Paul somehow did and does that for me.


And that to me is what a role model is. It is not somebody I want to copy, imitate nor to look or sound like. For me it is someone who shows a way of being, an approach to life and a consistency of valuing that just screams at you that it is a good way go. A great example to follow, but to do so in your style and following your own map as the terrain is entirely different. So whether in a moment of desperate need, of quiet reflection or thoughtful planning - I recommend thinking of where your trusted role models (past & present) might guide you by the invisible threads that connect you.

I am also so grateful to everyone who has supported me in what has been a 9 year journey, through learning, graduating, volunteering as a counsellor, employed working and finally to creating my own practice, and to those who have helped me with advice, guidance and encouragement. THANK YOU!


Thanks too to Uncle Paul for the lovely gold & red Paper Mate pen you gave me in 1979 after my summer work ended that year, and which started a never ending fascination with nice pens that I still have today, but that's another story!...









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