David Constantine MBE is a friend of Mockingbird Press. More importantly, though, he is also one of the most interesting photographers in Bristol. Bob met him at his house in Redland, to discuss the art of photography, travel and overcoming adversity.
I got my first SLR when I was fifteen,” explains David, in warm, lapsed-Essex tones. “In my late teens and early twenties I started to get more into it; I taught myself to print in my later teens.
I was studying farming at agricultural college and working down in Devon. I did two and a half years working on different farms, and all the time I was setting up darkrooms in my bosses' bathrooms, or getting lifts into York to spend the day photographing.”
Rather tragically, during these studies, David was involved in an event that left him severely injured. Sentenced to indefiniteness in a wheelchair, and confronted with such an epic hurdle at the birth of a life-passion, he was understandably devastated. “I gave up. I put my camera kit under the bed for a year.” But this despondence didn't last long.
“I realised very quickly that I couldn't give up. I kept seeing images all the time, and I thought, 'This is stupid; my mind's still working like a photographer'. I just needed to sort out the technology, the nuts and bolts, and get my camera set up on my chair.
Four years later, in '86, I went to medium format which changed everything. I had more control, I could look down the camera more easily, and eventually the only thing I wasn't able to do was change film. I started to take it more seriously. I was still only shooting part-time amateur stuff, but I began to forge a certain style.”
This style appears to be a blend of natural-born insight and admirable adaptation.
“Because I'm in a chair, I think I can come across a bit less threatening. People also tend to be just as inquisitive of me as I am of them- particularly in a street situation where I may just happen upon someone. The fact I'm not bringing the camera up to me eye helps, as well; I've still got eye-contact with them as I'm shooting them.”
As Constantine talks, it's clear how consumed he has become with all things photographic.
“I've only got half curtains in my room; I hate waking up in the dark, not being able to look out from my bed to see what kind of light it is. It's one of the reasons I like living where I do. There's this amazing light on the Downs in the morning, as the sun comes up behind the house. It's the first thing I'm thinking about, every morning, as I open my eyes: what's the light going to be like today?”
Amazingly well travelled, David's experience of shooting in different locations and environments is vast. He's keen to get across that spontaneity is key to his shooting style, but he also knows how to make his own luck sometimes.
“When I think about some of the best days I've had photographing, it's been around 6.30-7.00am in a city like Mumbai or Jalalabad; the morning's a bit hazy, there are a few people around, and you come across someone who's interesting and the light is just spot on.
It's not so much what I'm controlling; it's about getting up and about, being in the right place at the right time, and capturing that image. You don't know what that's going to be, but you know it when you see it.”
He's surprised, but flattered, at the suggestion that there may be something inherently cinematic about his photographs.
“Well I love cinema,” he says. “Going to the movies is probably what I do most in my spare time. I'm not a film critic- I can't talk too much about direction or screenwriting- but if it's visually amazing film, I'll like it.
There's a film called Argo that's based on a true story. If you watch the crowd scenes at the start, you keep seeing these images that I've seen in still pictures before. I thought, is this real film?
At the end of the movie, they show you the original photojournalist shots mirrored against their film scenes, and I thought, Wow! They'd actually gone over historical pictures, framed them, and set them up. They didn't just include some old newsreel, and that made it much more real for me. I pick up on things like that.”
So which other photographers does this one revere?
“I'm somewhat in awe of those war photographers Don McMullan and Larry Burrows. I would like to have been either of them! In terms of black and white, I suppose Sebastiao Salgado for the grandeur of the scenes he picks up.
Within the last ten years I came across Steve McCurry, who took the famous Afghan Girl picture. I watched a little film of him working, and he works in a similar way to me. I don't really plan; I'm not really focused; if we get to a junction, I'll just go, 'Uh, let's go left here...or, right there'. I always thought that was a bit lightweight, but I think essentially that's what he does: he goes out in the morning and he wanders.”
And David has wandered far. “Cuba's great for that. It's obviously a very photogenic place, but people are also out in in the streets, living their lives in the streets. Whereas you try and photograph on the streets of the UK and people are walking around busy or driving.”
The reader may have noticed a certain elephant in the room in the form of three letters following David's surname. Strongly devoted to helping others, he's been involved with Motivation, a charitable company designed to improve wheelchair quality in the developing world, for over twenty-five years.
“In 2010 I was awarded an MBE for services to people with disabilities. Someone nominated me for it. You get a letter out of the blue that says, 'The Prime Minister offers you this...will you accept it?' I said, 'Yeh'.
It's a funny one really, because I was just doing my day job, but other people see it quite differently I suppose.”
There's an evocative photograph hanging on the wall of a surfer watching the tide at Croyde Bay.
“That's one of mine. I took that because it says a lot about what I think about life and surfing. Everybody thinks that surfing's all about the action, and being out on the wave, but there's more to it than that. You have to sit, wait, and read the beach before you go in.”
This affinity with the surf dates back to the old days, before the accident. He's extremely candid about the memories he has of when everything changed.
“I was out in Australia studying farming, while also practising photography and surfing. Me and two other guys were on an island off the coast of Queensland called Fraser Island. I dived into a shallow pool that had been left by the tide.
As soon as I couldn't get out of the water, I knew what I'd done. The two guys pulled me out and they were saying, 'You'll be alright; you're just in shock.' I just said, 'No, this is it. I'm paralysed'.”
David recounts this story as calmly as if he were describing a particularly typical day at the beach. There's an obvious reason why he can do this; he has gone on to get more out of life, and give more back to the world, than many could possibly aim to. For young disabled people who are blessed with similarly creative minds, David's story is one that proves remarkable things can be achieved through sheer will and passion.
His working week is spent supporting such people, and he leaves us with this advice to pass on.
“A photographer friend of mine once said to me, 'It's not about whether you're good enough, but whether it's what you want to do, and it fulfils your creative needs.'
That was a step in the mechanism to get me doing things. So whether someone's into painting, photography, illustration, ceramics etc. there will be a way. Whatever their disability is, there'll be a way. It might cost them a bit, it might be difficult, but most people out there are also incredibly encouraging and helpful. Despite all the hurdles, just keep your focus.”
Click here for more of David's photography
Click here for David's company site- Motivation