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David Constantine photographing in Bangladesh David Constantine photographing in Bangladesh

Photo: Pierre Willems

About Sitting Images

Equipment
Film
Subjects
Credits

Sitting Images is the name I gave to my photography when I started to exhibit in the late 80’s. My interest in photography started as a teenager, I was so keen to get a camera I sold my bicycle to buy my first SLR.

In the following years I became a keen amateur taking my camera everywhere. Fortunately the only camera I could afford was completely manual so I learnt the basics quite quickly which has stood me good stead ever since.

Following a diving accident while travelling in Australia in 1982, I was rendered quadriplegic at a level of C4/5. This in effect meant that I was paralysed from the shoulders down and left with no grip in my hands.

Unable to pick up my camera, I gave up photography for exactly a year. During that year I realised that I was still ‘seeing’ pictures, choosing images in my head even to the point of deciding on film types and composition I would use for a particular shot. The only thing I lacked was the physical ability to use a camera. I realised that this was a ridiculous reason for giving up and all it need take was some adaptations to my camera and wheelchair to enable me to take pictures.

A year to the day of my injury I wrote to the manufacturer of my camera and asked if they could help. To my delight they replied positively and so started the process of enabling me to take pictures again.

Equipment

After a few years I found the equipment I was using to raise the camera up to my eye was too bulky and I had stopped taking it out with me. For some time I researched cameras and equipment that would allow me to keep the camera low and close to the chair to make it as steady as possible. I also wanted to be able to not only view the image through the finder but also see the camera controls and settings. As I have no feeling in my hands, if I can’t see what they are doing I can’t tell what they are touching. I also needed something that was reasonably large so that I could get my rather clumsy hands in to use the dials and trigger. The answer for the camera was obviously a medium format 6x6 style SLR.

Another issue was what to mount the heavy camera on to. I can only use one hand at a time for any movement as I have little balance in my trunk and need one arm to hang on to my chair. I therefore needed something like a tripod head that would allow a range of movement but one that didn’t require two hands. I found the answer in a photography magazine before I had thought about the camera. It was a friction head called an Arca Swiss Monoball and is effectively a ball and socket joint with a friction control to allow a camera of any weight to be mounted on it.

Having found a camera type and mount I needed to be able to mount both these heavy items to my chair so there was no chance of camera shake, effectively making my wheelchair into a wheeled tripod/dolly. This was achieved by asking an engineer I worked with, who was also a photographer, to help me tackle the problem. As a photographer he knew exactly how steady this rig needed to be and came up with a very simple bar mounted with some old wheelchair brake clamps which held a two legged stand onto which he mounted the monoball.

I chose the Rolleiflex 6000 series as being the best camera range for the price. Moving into medium format from 35mm seems like an outrageously expensive move and I deliberated for many months as to whether my photography skills warranted the cost. Advice from a friend at the Oxford Photographers Workshop helped me make the decision, if it going to help you take more pictures, then it is worth it. It was one of the best pieces of advice and I have never regretted going to medium format. It made me take my photography much more seriously, see and compose in both squares and rectangles and of course gives the most beautiful quality images.

The camera had a built in drive and meter which many 6x6 cameras didn’t have at the time. It also seemed to be the sturdiest for the rigours of travelling. I now use the 6008e with small bespoke levers added to the focus and aperture, speed and meter selection rings while the triggers have been extended slightly to allow me easy access to them. However, as they are out of sight at the front lower corners of the body, I occasionally miss shots, apparently pressing the trigger while nothing is happening. Thankfully this doesn’t happen too often. I can do everything on the camera apart from change film and magazines. The ease of film change was a big factor in the choice of the Rollei, loading a Hasselblad for example is a difficult thing to explain to someone who has never even handled a roll of 120 film before and easy to load backwards. The Rollei on the other hand is self-explanatory.

I use only two lenses a 90mm with close focus for most purposes and a 180mm very occasionally. I do also have a 50mm that I use less as I now also use a Fuji 645 range finder camera. (See below)

Another issue to deal with was the weight of all this gear while travelling, medium format cameras aren’t the obvious choice for a travel photographer. Add this to the weight of the stand and the monoball, suddenly my camera bag weighed a great deal and it was my poor assistant who was going to have to carry it. My decision was aided by having my camera bag and kit left in a bar in Granada, Spain while we made our way up the hill to the Alhambra Palace. Following that trip I started looking for camera bags which would not only stand up but also serve as a rucksack so that they could be laid flat and hang from under my chair. I use the empty area under my fixed frame chair to hang the bag that allowed my assistant to access the gear from between my shins. This not only meant the gear didn’t have to be carried by anyone but importantly it was in a very safe place and out of view. It also allowed me to relax while shooting in a busy street or market, not having to worry whether someone had walked off with my bag.

Prior to a trip to Bangladesh, which has a very flat landscape, I bought a Fuji 6x9 65mm SuperWide manual camera for better landscape work. What I actually used this camera for most was in crowded markets and crowds where it was ideal. This camera was the perfect complement to my 6x6. I could meter off my Rollei and my assistant could set and hold it to my eye, after some practice it was a team effort. The 6x9 became a real workhorse and has survived many drops, being thrown in the air by a thief in Cambodia and monsoon rains. With no meter or electronics it was a great travel companion. I have since upgraded to a Fuji 645 45mm GSW which has auto-focus and metering. This gives me the same advantages of the 6x9 but is faster to use in a street situation and easier to teach a novice assistant to help me with.

A close up of camera stand attached to wheelchair Camera and Stand mounting on Wheelchair

Film

I use Fuji film exclusively and Fuji Professional have been a great support for many years. All the images on the site are transparencies or B&W negative and are either shot on Velvia 50, my personal favourite, Provia 100 or 400, MS100/1000 or Neopan 400. Wherever possible I will use Velvia and only use the other colour films in less favourable light conditions or with mixed lighting. The beauty of having my camera mounted to my chair is that I have a ready made tripod which, as long as I sit still, allows me to use very slow speeds with slow film early in the morning. I rarely use flash much preferring natural daylight. I do occasionally use the pop up flash on my Fuji 645 in dark markets and situations.

Subjects

All the disadvantages I foresaw with my photography after becoming a wheelchair user have turned into advantages. I thought I had lost my spontaneity, the ability to take pictures of people without being seen, speed, the ability to get to difficult locations and most importantly being able to go and photograph very early in the morning on my own. Indeed I am slow, obvious to my subjects (often drawing a large crowd), and need someone to help get me up and push me around and to assist with my gear.

What this has meant is that I have developed different skills and enhanced others I probably already had. The main one is that I think more, plan, compose more carefully as there is no point in me trying to rush. Neither my physical abilities or my cameras are suitable for the ‘quick shot’. I am so conspicuous that it has made me bolder, I am happy to go and ask someone for their picture. If I can’t communicate verbally I make it very obvious that I would like to take their picture, people make it quite clear whether they are happy for me to photograph them or not.

D Constantine taking a photograph through a tunnel of young observers. Inquisitive Muslim school children surround D Constantine. Jalalabad, Afghanistan & Stone Town, Zanzibar.

 

This is the scene that my subjects often see, a tunnel of people curious about a photographer in a wheelchair. Children often help break the ice during photographic session by gathering round me, and then making comments to my subjects.In many countries, cameras are viewed with both fascination and suspicion. A wheelchair user with a camera often causes something of a stir. I am convinced that I am able to photograph people in a more relaxed atmosphre as I don't have to make the somewhat aggressive motion of putting a camera up to my eye which isn't dissimilar to the action of bringing a rifle to the ready. All I have to do is look down to my camera.

My main interest is people in their own environments. I find this a real challenge and while it would seem more obvious to do something like landscape or still life, I just don’t the satisfaction that I get when I see that I have captured that wonderful moment of interaction between people.

I love getting up early and I am fascinated by light, particularly the amazing ranges of sunlight at different times of the day. I rarely wear sunglasses because I cannot bear not seeing the true colours that are in front of me. I also feel the best scenes occur on the streets before the hour of 9am. There is always an incredible scene unfolding when wandering the streets in other countries early in the morning. It is rare that I come back to where I am staying without having seen something amazing or having had a fascinating interaction with someone.

D Constantine chats with a stall holder in Stone Town. Chatting with a Subject, Stone Town, Zanzibar.Photo: P. Wingate-Saul

Credits

Many people and organisations over the years have helped me, but in particular I would to thank:

Keith Barnes at the Oxford Photography Workshop
Ian Dickens, former Marketing/PR Director at Olympus together with his engineer colleague Robert Kemp-Smith who helped me set up my first camera stand. Also to Sara Cubitt and the current staff at Olympus for their continued support.

Rebecca Battman for encouraging me to have my first exhibition

Jonathon Topps, formerly of Fuji Professional and Jeanette Beattie for ongoing help from Fuji.
Mara Fizdale, USA
Brian and Dennis of former Classic Repairs for emptying my cameras of sand and dirt and sorting out my clumsy mishandling of the Rolleis.
Nigel Hodgson formerly of AV Distributors, London for equipment.
Ian Dampney and Nigel Hodgson of Random, for the many tweaks and adaptations of my equipment.
Tony Gajewski of Jupiter Display, London for excellent printing and scanning.

Lord Snowdon for advice and guidance

Iwein Dekoninck and Lizzie White for help with this website

To the many assistants, colleagues and friends I have travelled with. Those who got up early to go on morning shoots with me, dragged me up hills, over rubbish tips in Calcutta, carried me across mine fields and wandered into situations we probably shouldn’t have, without whom none of the shots on the site would have been possible.

D Constantine in the sands of Morocco showing his camera set up. Stuck. Sahara, Morocco. Photo: P. Wingate-Saul

This picture clearly shows how my camera is positioned in front of me. It allows me freedom of use, without getting in my way when I want to move.

Fuji film logo

Olympus Logo

Jupiter display logo