BY CALUM FRASER
Matt Robinson and Sam Cornwell literally shot for the stars.
A few years ago they were getting by, picking up work where they could, living a regular life and taking a few photos along the way.
But then they turned their lenses to the sky and suddenly their lives changed forever.
Matt, 32, worked for five years in a call centre in Sunderland but after taking out a loan to buy a camera he spent all night on the beach taking photographs of the sky and entered them into Greenwich Obersvatory’s Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year award (IAPY).
He said: “Winning the award is a blur. It all completely blew me away, it was life changing because it gave me the confidence to take more images and be more creative.
“During that time I was struggling with confidence due to workplace bullying, so to be praised by the highest in UK astronomy for my work was the proudest moment of my life.”
Matt always wanted to pursue a creative career but felt there was not a lot of opportunity in the North of England.
He continued: “Life was ‘normal’ before the award. Every day would be the same, angry customers and repetitive scripts within the same four walls.
“In no way am I being disrespectful to anyone who works in a call centre but it wasn’t the job for me.
“I didn’t have any plans because it’s hard to escape the cycle of working till the next pay cheque.
“Creative employment opportunities are hard to find in the North East, especially for someone like me with little qualifications.
“My image was taken by a lad who is passionate about science and astronomy but had never had that push to follow his dreams. It spurred me on to take more images and inspire the next generation of photographers no matter what age.”
Matt met Sam while volunteering at an observatory in Northumberland in 2014. It was Sam who encouraged him to submit his photos into the competition. Sam won the Observatory’s Sir Patrick Moore Prize for Best Newcomer in 2013.
Like Matt, Sam was out all night, camera pinned to the sky, trying to get the perfect photo. He was chasing an astronomical event called the Venus Transit, where Venus passes directly in front of the sun.
Sam said: “It was an incredible moment. We won’t see it again for another hundred years or something. Everyone will be dead the next time it happens.
“I went up to this hill called Fox Hunters Grave. It was 2am and the Venus Transit wasn’t happening for another four and a half hours. It was wet and windy and pitch black. I sat there shivering in my car.
“I wasn’t a professional astronomer or anything like that and I was thinking I had made a serious mistake here. Of course, all the people who knew what they were doing started turning up about 10 minutes before the event.
“So I had been waiting there for four and half hours preparing for it like a mug. Everyone else just turned up with equipment far greater and bigger than mine, pulling it out of their cars and looking over at the amateur who’d been here for hours with my little camera.
“But then when I got the photo I remember screaming, ‘I’ve got it, I’ve got it.’
“All the pros came running over to look at the back of my little camera screen because they hadn’t managed to see it. It was really exciting. That was the sixth of the sixth 2012.”
Sam entered his photograph but thought nothing of it until he received an email out of the blue months later inviting him down to Greenwich because he had been shortlisted.
He said: “We were sat front and centre of this planetarium when they were reading out the winners. Then they mentioned me and I was like, oh my good grief.
“My wife Beverly turned to me and she just burst into tears.
“I kind of knew this was an amazing photo but I didn’t realise it would go on to do great things.”
“I had interviews all day on TV: BBC, ITV, Chinese News, Canadian News, lots of different news organisations.
“I was like, wow, I just took a photo guys. The thing was, it was the first time I was able to bring both my loves together, photography and astronomy.
“I thought astrophotography meant you needed thousands of pounds worth of equipment and telescopes. I didn’t realise that I could have done it myself with a camera and a long lens. That made me realise that I had something there.
“It gave me confidence to go on further and that confidence got me into an observatory, where I met Matt.”
Both men say they are now living the dream and that it stems directly from the Greenwich award.
Sam is at the University of Edinburgh studying for an Masters of Science with an eye to go into astronomy in the future, while Matt is working in the arctic circle taking photographs of the aurora lights.
Matt said: “It’s incredibly easy to get carried away and develop an ego when you’re being praised, but I’ve worked for awful people in the past with astronomical egos and it is a nightmare.
“My roots keep me grounded and I realise how fortunate I am to be doing what I’m doing.”
Submissions for the IAPY 2018 awards are now open until Friday March 9.