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Photographer's Statement

I have always seen in images and I am enthused by light. Having the ability to capture images how I see them, is the challenge.

When I started to photograph more seriously during my teens, I was looking for my niche, trying as many photographic forms as possible, dabbling in sports, surf, landscape, music and people.

However, my focus was brought into sharp detail when, following a diving injury in 1982, aged 21, I was left paralysed from the shoulders down, unable to grip or pick up a camera.

I decided to give up photography as just another one of those things I was going to have to accept in my new life as a quadriplegic wheelchair user.

What I hadn’t counted on was that I couldn’t just give up ‘seeing’ that easily.

With help from a number of key people, in particular Ian Dickens, Head of PR at Olympus Cameras and Oxford based photographer Keith Barnes, I was able to start taking pictures again just over a year following my accident.

When I moved to a medium format camera and started to travel, then I found my real challenge. That challenge was to photograph people in their own environment, in a relaxed setting and at their ease. I find photographing people on the streets creates for me more of a connection with a place.

Though I cannot blend into the background, I have learnt over the years that I can present myself to my subjects. They are generally as intrigued by me, as I am by them, which helps me create an engagement. A foreigner in a wheelchair with a camera is not something one sees often in many of the countries I have had the privilege to travel to. I am inspired by the way people live, how their faces tell stories, often of hard work and struggle to survive. Experiences that we, living in more privileged circumstances, often take for granted. The recent history of a place or country fascinates me, I try to photograph people who would have lived through or even will live through times of great change in their country. Other times I’m just drawn by the colours, the composition or the activity of subjects.

My natural inclination is to get up early for good light and photograph what's on the streets to build an essence of place. The constraints of having my camera mounted on my wheelchair helped me realise that portraiture through street-work suited my way of working and enabled me to portray a sense of the atmosphere of place through the people who live there. For many years I thought this was something of a random, shallow approach to photography, however I have since learnt otherwise.

For the last 30 years I have been lucky enough to travel the world with the charity Motivation (www.motivation.org.uk) that I co-founded with Simon Gue and Richard Frost, and at the same time document our work, photograph incredible places that I never dreamt I would visit, meet beneficiaries of our work and photograph their stories in images.

An inspiring conversation -

In 1990 I went on a course to the Rockport Photographic summer school in Maine, USA. One of the tutors that week was a well-known American photographer Jay Maisel. His books were on sale in the bookshop, one in particular ‘Light on America’ contained beautiful depictions of American life and observations of light and its effect on everyday objects. He wasn’t someone I had heard of before, however he was clearly a successful, known photographer.

One evening the head of the school asked me to display some of the photographs from my India and Bangladesh trip. I was flattered that he had singled my work out for display. During the evening I got chatting with Jay Maisel. He pointed at my pictures and enquired whether it was me who had taken them. He nodded his head slowly. “So tell me, how did you get to India and Bangladesh to take these?”, I explained. “And what you want to do with your photography?” I told him that one day I hoped to be a professional photographer. “Why would you want to do that?” I thought for a moment. “Er, I suppose because I’d like to earn my living from something I love doing.” Deep down I also think I wanted to fulfil my original dream of being able to take a photograph that was good enough to publish. “If you think taking photographs for books like mine is all I do, think again. I don’t make any money from things like that, that’s my spare time. As a commercial photographer I have to pay studio bills, manage staff, work with advertising agencies and clients and earn a crazy huge amount of money every month just to pay for it all.”

He gestured up at my pictures. “My advice to you is go off and do your wheelchair project in Bangladesh and see where it takes you. If you can go around the world taking pictures of that quality and don’t need to earn a living from it, then you’re a lucky man, I would do that.”

This was a sound piece of advice to be given about my photography and, as it turned out, my future life.

The photographs on this website are the result of me taking his advice, immersing myself in my work for Motivation, while at the same time being lucky enough to travel the world and make time to photograph as well.

I have been helped through my photographic journey by many people. In particular however I would like to thank Fuji film who have been extremely generous with their support over many years.

I hope you enjoy seeing them as much as I have enjoyed taking them.

David Constantine MBE - 2020

About David Constantine

By Ian Dickens

It’s a great honour to write this introduction and I was thrilled when David asked me. He and I go back a bit – to February 7th, 1983 to be precise. Exactly a year previously, he had dived into a lagoon in Australia as an able bodied 21 year old student and floated to the surface with an injury that changed his life. He had broken his neck and was paralysed. As he came to terms with the physical disability from a severed spinal cord, there was nothing wrong with his mind and his keen photographer’s eye continued to see images everywhere he looked...

Having owned an Olympus OM2, David decided on that February Sunday to fire off a letter to Olympus’s UK office to see if they could help him take pictures again.

I was heading up the Olympus PR team at the time and David’s letter resonated. A racing driver mate of mine had gone through a similar injury a couple of years prior and I was eager to do what I could to help. Our service department leapt at the challenge and pretty soon, we had a wheelchair mount, lenses that sprouted stalks to control the focus, aperture and shutter speeds and an angled finder which allowed David to peer through the viewfinder.

I was struck – as is everyone when they meet David – by his utter positivity, ready smile, quiet determination and forward-looking approach. What he has gone on to achieve is utterly inspirational.

The work of Motivation, the charity he co-founded, has taken him to all corners of our planet and the camera has always gone with him. Moving on from Olympus’s 35mm SLR’s, he progressed to medium format with Rollei and found that he had a unique viewpoint from which to engage his subjects.

Not many people like having their photograph taken and a photographer hiding behind his camera can be quite a threatening presence. But if you are taking pictures from a wheelchair, the threat is replaced by intrigue, followed by engagement. David’s portraits are beautifully composed and carry a gentle serenity as the viewer effortlessly becomes involved in the lives of individuals whose homes might be in Afghanistan, Zimbabwe or India. He is a very talented photographer.

I am lucky to have a collection of photographs from the many friends I made while at Olympus. In my hall, the work of David Bailey, Barry Lategan, Bob Carlos-Clarke and Chris Steele-Perkins proudly hang, and in the middle of those is a David Constantine print. Six Kenyan kids peer in to the lens and their cheeky and natural charm always makes me smile.

Smiling is something that David has always done and I hope you are as moved by his work – and his journey – as I am.

By Keith Barnes

I met David in the early eighties when we became friends over photography and computers. In those days his pictures were competent if a bit uninspiring and all predated his accident. He had not used a camera since before his accident and part of his aim was to start making pictures again. There were some technical difficulties but these were not insurmountable, as nothing seems to be for David.

If you look at the books on David's bookshelves you see the photographers who have inspired him. The pictures these photographers take are about human stories. The Vietnam war photographers, Don McCullin, Philip Jones-Griffiths and others are most present. Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt, in fact most of the most important photographers of the past fill his shelves along with the photographer most similar to David's sense of vision, who also has David's compassion and empathy – Steve McCurry. I wondered if it was unrealistic to consider, in fact to name David Constantine in such illustrious company but his portraits from around the world, especially from Afghanistan, have that personal intimacy that is compelling in the way that McCurry's pictures do.

I have spent many hours, probably days when added together, looking at David's work with him, assessing and evaluating why one image or another has that special quality that lifts it above a mere representation of a person. It is strange that a photographer's work, measured in fractions of a second, when added together might only make an hour or two at most over a career. When you look at David's pictures you see that those fractions add up, not just to time, but to an understanding and humanity, that the true value becomes apparent. Many photographers move us by showing us the sheer awfulness of life, the hopelessness of the human condition, in the worst places in the world. David does not reduce his subjects to objects of hopelessness, he shows us, in a way that few other photographers do, that no matter how hard their lives may be, his subjects are also people like us, with just the same hope.

We have debated how he gets this special response from his subjects; it has been suggested that being from the wealthy West but in a wheelchair he evokes curiosity and a levelling but I think it is as much about David the man as it might be about his condition. His images have a quietness about them, a serenity, a sense of peace. This is in part because his preferred photographic image format is square but also because he is never in a hurry to capture life. He is prepared to put himself out, to get up before dawn to traverse the streets in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cuba, wherever he finds himself and to wait and look. He also understands that thing photographers must know, light; he seeks out light to illuminate and embrace his subjects and will wait until the light is as he needs it. Walker Evans said "Stare. It is the way you educate your eye and more." I think this is what David does, he looks very hard to educate and inform us, the fortunate viewers of his images.

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