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The Independent Culture
The photographer Justin Quinnell treats cameras roughly. He has thrown them off buildings; attached them to bicycle wheels, windscreen wipers, tube trains, boomerangs and tortoises. He has used them as shuttlecocks. Most recently, he wedged one in his mouth, for his series of images "A Day In The Life Of My Mouth": a tonsils'-eye view of activities such as teeth-brushing, drinking a pint and playing the harmonica.

His secret is that he uses pinhole cameras, which are virtually indestructible. These instruments, the simplest way to take a picture, will be familiar to any Blue Peter veteran. The film is exposed to light through a small aperture in any light-opaque container, a shoebox, for instance; there is no lens, no viewfinder, you have to estimate the exposure time, and the image you end up with is unlikely to be of the sharpest quality. Which is why most people soon graduate to a standard point-and-shoot model.

But Justin Quinnell, who is head of photography at South Bristol College, lecturer at the Southampton Institute and author of the (as yet unpublished) Pinhole Photographer's Handbook, prefers to see such features as advantages. "The indestructibility of the pinhole camera means that you don't have to treat it like a precious jewel. That, and the long exposure time that you need to allow, mean that you can experiment with lots of different situations."

The camera he used for the mouth shots is a simple 110 Instamatic film cartridge, masked by a piece of aluminium with a small hole in it. The hole is covered with insulating tape to keep the light out. "It takes two minutes to make." To use it in the mouth, "You remove the insulating tape, cover the hole with your finger, then just jam the camera in the back of your mouth, gripping it with those big teeth at the back. Then you take your finger away to take the picture. The exposure needed in daylight is about five seconds."

He has encouraged his students to do likewise, and they have responded enthusiastically. But there are hazards, especially if you have a dainty orifice. "One of my students did get one stuck, briefly, so I think I'm fortunate in having a sufficiently sized mouth," Quinnell explains.

One of his aims is to take himself back to the origins of photography, "when you had to use wet plates and emulsion. One of my other projects was using a wheely-bin as a pinhole camera; I had to drag it up and down steps, along the pavement, on to the bus to Clifton Suspension Bridge, where I had to allow a 10-minute exposure. Sitting there for 10 minutes is what they would have had to do in the 1830s and '40s. I developed the film myself in the bath."

The project was a success - the Royal Photographic Society bought many of the pictures and, later, the wheely-bin itself - and he returned to the bridge to take mouth shots. The best of this latest series are arguably the portraits of his friends, several of whom look seriously bemused. "Usually in photographs people try and look cool, as if they were Robert De Niro. You can't do that when there's someone with a camera shoved in their gob trying to take your picture." !