Photography is so intertwined with my life that in many ways, it is my life. The camera gives me a reason to travel, to spend time or to sit and maybe spend an hour, or a day or even a month somewhere I like.
Sebastien Tickner is a UK based photographer who, along with his wife and fellow photographer Louise, has spent most of the last 20 years travelling and photographing around South Asia. Equipped with a Rolleiflex each, and a folding darkroom, Sebastien and Louise made a living by shooting, printing and selling their work as they traveled.
More recently, they’ve been living on their narrowboat, traveling the canals of Britain, photographing, printing in their floating darkroom, and using the boat as a mobile gallery to sell their work. They’ve just self-published a beautiful book of photographs – Uneasy Paradise: Living on the Waterways – about their life on the canal. We’ll be featuring the book and an interview with Louise and Sebastien in March.
In the meantime, Sebastien shares his project, Road Workers with us: it’s a series of hauntingly beautiful portraits of Himalayan workers, that was nearly destroyed by a careless photolab.
Why is working on personal projects so important to you?
When I started in photography I was at Plymouth University doing a degree in photography but I left after six months because they were really trying to teach us how to do commercial work, and I just wanted to take pictures for myself.
I went off to Costa Rica and took pictures of my travels and came back and I started selling them. Then people started to ask me to shoot their weddings or do commercial work for them, But very quickly, they started to say I want it like this or like that. I felt like as soon as money got placed on me people felt like they owned me.
So since then it’s been better for me to take the pictures I want and just sell them to people on the streets or from our boat, and to figure out the prices according to what people like.
How did the project come about?
It was on my second trip to India and I’d arrived in Delhi and I just wanted to go north. I hadn’t researched it but I just wanted to follow the road going up into the Himalayas. I got to Manali and at that point there was snow covering the passes. So I waited there a few weeks and when the first trucks started going north, I hitchhiked up the road.
And as I was hitchhiking up, I kept seeing these road workers and I’d never seen anything like it.
As a group there was a kind of force behind them, and that despite the cold and the sparse living conditions, they were working together. There was this comradery amongst them and they were incredibly kind and very friendly. I remember laughing a lot, even though nobody spoke English. I must have spent about a month hitchhiking up the road, staying with them in their tents.
These were pretty much the first portraits I’d tried, and certainly the first ones that I really liked. But I was shooting on my Rolleiflex, so I wasn’t sure what I was getting until I took the film back to Delhi to get it developed.
How did you achieve their strong and distinctive look.
They were shot on Nova film, which at the time you could buy for about 50 rupees (about 60 pence) but you couldn’t buy very much so I was very limited on shots. When I took them down to Delhi to get them developed the lab completely ruined the film: there were chemical marks all over them, it was badly developed and the contrast was extreme. And they were already high contrast because of the shooting conditions,
I tried to print them in the guest-houses I was staying in but I only had really high contrast paper and it just wasn’t coming out. So I just put them in a box and forgot about them for several years.
And then I saw that the Impossible Project had released a Polaroid printer that could print images from your mobile phone. So I scanned all the negatives put them on the phone and printed them straight on to black and white Polaroids. And the look was I think exactly what I was hoping to get out of them.
You and Louise have just self-published a photobook about the canal and the community you live in, are you working on any other new projects?
We’re actually continuing with the canal project. At the back of the book there’s a series of black and white portraits and we’re carrying on with those. Now that people have seen the book it’s much easier, we can approach people and show them the book, or they’re coming to us.
We want to carry on capturing our friends and the way they live, and we’re doing interviews with them as well.
Which photographers inspire you?
Faizal Sheikh is a huge inspiration and I like his Moksha book very much.
And Eric Valli, I love his Caravans of the Himalaya.
What gadget couldn’t you live without?
It would have to be my Rolleiflex – both Louise and I use them. We’ve never bought the higher end models, or even very tidy ones, we just bought them where we found them in India or Bangkok. So we’re always worried that something’s going to go wrong or that we won’t be able to get them repaired any more.