'It's My Passion, a Real Labour of Love' A Near-Death Experience Spawned a Love of Photography for David Wilson. He Tells Nathan Bevan How a 35mm Camera and the Sprawling Landscape of Wales Helped Save His Life and Picks His Favourite 10 Photos from His Beautiful New Book
Byline: Nathan Bevan
"The doctors suggested that my parents should perhaps buy a bungalow." That's how celebrated landscape photographer David Wilson describes the moment the severity of the road accident that befell him as a teenager first became apparent.
Hospitalised with a broken neck and back, concerned medics gravely intoned that he'd probably spend the rest of his days in a wheelchair after coming off his motorbike while trying to avoid an oncoming car in his native Pembrokeshire 28 years ago.
"The prognosis was pretty grim - grim, but brutally honest," says the 47-year-old from Haverfordwest. "It seemed unlikely I'd ever walk again, although the weirdest thing was how calm I remember feeling about the whole situation. Some people might say I was in shock or denial, but I simply refused to accept my fate and clung to the crazy notion I'd be okay somehow."
Convinced he could feel pain when medical staff stuck his legs with needles, Wilson would spend days staring at his toes and willing them to move. After six months in treatment - including gruelling physiotherapy at a specialist spinal unit in Cardiff - he was permitted home, able to walk again but knowing he wouldn't be able to get about as well as he did before the crash.
"I think that's where my camera probably helped a lot," he says, admitting that without the hobby he'd taken up the year before he'd have found his rehabilitation much harder.
"When you're in the state I was in you can feel very self-conscious, like everybody's pitying you, so being able to go out to take pictures helped a lot. And, whereas before I might have been disinclined to walk 30 or 40 yards, the thought there might be an image worth capturing just round the corner spurred me on."
And the wealth of such sights around his home of Llangwm provided the content of Pembrokeshire (Graffeg, pounds 25), Wilson's first book of striking monochrome landscape photos in 2009.
It proved to be a world away from the nine-to-five office existence with which he'd paid his way until that point.
"I used to work in the civil service processing forms all day long and, God, it was awful. And after that I ended up working in a call centre, which was even worse, so me and my wife Anna sat down to discuss the mad idea of me switching to photography full-time.
"It was a big gamble, what with our mortgage and everything, but I've been lucky to be with someone so supportive."
And now Wilson's latest offering, Wales: A Photographer's Journey, sees the snapper turn his sights to the whole of the country, with 150 atmospheric black and white images capturing everything from the slate mines of Blaenau Ffestiniog, through to the antiquated frontages of Hay-on-Wye's many bookshops and the panoramic splendour of Gower's Three Cliffs beach.
"The first book was easy to do because everything was right on my doorstep - I knew what I wanted and went out and got it. But when you take on an entire country, albeit a relatively small one, you have to be a lot more focussed and plan your trips otherwise you end up driving up blind alleys. So I made sure I did my research, grabbed my orienteering map and off I went." And while his shots do indeed evoke "the stark and demanding beauty of rural Wales" and its "harsh abstractions and bare outlines" - as broadcaster Griff Rhys Jones so poetically puts in the book's foreword - Wilson admits he's always keen to include the evidence of human existence in his pictures, if not actual people themselves. "Say I wanted to photograph a mountain; I'd have to try to get a glimpse of road, a telegraph pole or a washing line in there somewhere because most folk are more instinctively drawn to an image if there's something familiar in it to identify with. …