“The camera has the power to catch so-called normal people in such a way as to make them look abnormal. The photographer chooses oddity, chases it, frames it, develops it, titles it”
The use of photography to tell the story of disability is a long and controversial one. Traditionally it championed the medical model of disability and social inclusion – that it was YOUR fault for being disabled in the first place.
Early use of the lens to capture such gazes only succeeded in producing works that showcased disability as ‘the freak show‘ and allowed the viewer to gaze upon the abhorrent in a way that they felt safe.
Disabled people simply felt abused.
The use of the camera to record disability as just that – a disability, became the easy way of showcasing an element of society that, it was felt, could not speak for themselves. This objectification of disabled people was, seemingly, the ‘right thing to do’. Allowing society to view ‘this level’ of humanity with scorn and pity, whilst safely in their own homes.
To this notion, I hold the photographer very much accountable here.
One of the leading issues in achieving equality for all is how we, as a society, view each other. Photography it seems is on the fount line, painting the view for the masses to gaze upon. Throughout history and even now, we are seeing ever more images that provoke, question and point at those who feel they have lacked, or feel they are not equal to others.
It is this choice of frame, this misconception of a way of seeing, this will to visually discriminate, objectify and discredit that I wholly charge photography with.
Uncomfortable is it not?
I am drawn to a quote by Sontag:
To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power. A now notorious first fall into alienation, habituating people to abstract the world into printed words, is supposed to have engendered that surplus of Faustian energy and psychic damage needed to build modern, inorganic societies.
Like words, photographs can be immensely powerful and with such power, they can do immense harm or immense good. To quote – They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.
For me, images of disabled people from the very start of photography right up to modern day, have been – in the main – woefully misrepresentative. The use of the image to show the breadth of society – within any culture – has often fallen to present the ‘beautiful few’ as the goal we should all aspire to become and the rest of us, as something to be, at best, mocked and ignored.
Many charities are at the driving end of this debate. The use of often negative stereotypes to encourage sympathetic donations to a cause, in it self driven by the next profit and loss report, is in my view also part of these cultural issues. Over time we have seen many TV and promotional campaigns that revolve around pitty. This pitty forms into guilt in our minds.
To remove this guilt we donate to a cause. That cause was the creator of our guilt. Our donation the seeming remedy. And so one in an ever-widening circle of cause and cure.
I don’t agree with them. They don’t make me feel guilty. Just anger.
This negative stereotyping puts the masses right back into Plato’s cave, only this time the masses themselves volunteer to be chained up in the hope that the bare face of reality merely fades into a shadow projected on the wall in front of them.
One area that disability is most keenly failed by photography is the world of hidden disabilities. Often the modern image takes our gaze to the relatable. That being people using mobility aids to get around. This for many is the iconic view of the disability world.
This, however, fails to represent the people with challenges you can’t see. I am one of those people – can you see disability in me?
Mental ill health, ME, Fibromyalgia, Learning Disability, Anxiety, PTSD, Social media anxiety, OCD… the list is long and sadly ever growing. More and more people are facing life with health challenges that are invisible to others. These challenges often draw people into isolation and loneliness, into a world where it is often easier to suffer and fade in silence than to reach out for a voice loud enough for others to hear.
So where is the photographer in all of this? – To once again quote Sontag:
To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more—and more. Images transfix. Images anaesthetize.
For me this statement confines images of disability – done in the medical model way – to being on the same level as a war or pornographic image. That being, images merely desensitize society and in turn, create a feeling of dismissal towards equality, perversion and inclusion, purely as the subject becomes too sharp an issue to discuss. After all, our guilt is simply resolved through a donation – is it not?
Granted its not all bad. The use of more abstract images is, in my view, heading in the right direction. They use metaphors and abstract frames to disarm and calm the gaze. This creates a safe space for all to debate on the issue.
Such works give a voice to those who are silent. To quote Helen Keller:
“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision”
Such lack of vision is still part of our culture and this is one area the photographer can if they choose, really challenge.
The recent work with the likes of Amy Purdy has championed the social model of disability – that being its societies problem, SO DEAL WITH IT. Images such as this promote what can be achieved if you push yourself and they have inspired a new generation to re-look at the cultural balance. However, these are still mainstream images on physical disability. The hidden are still very much silent.
One interesting piece of work has been by Krüger. Here her focus with Real Prettiness, was on peoples own perception of themselves. Celebrating an image of themselves that they chose to show.
Fig 4 Real Prettiness Linda Dajana Krüger
Krüger was criticised for the works, in my view wrongly. I feel that Krüger was presenting a new way of inclusion when giving people with Downs Syndrome a voice.
Often, Downes is viewed via the medical model, but to me, these works shout out, stand up and give a way of looking and connecting with the individuals. We are after all, all unique and all free to be the people we want to be.
What is interesting is looking at how this concept, knowingly or not has evolved. Below is one of Rankins images for the current Mencap Here I Am campaign.
This image is much grittier and has a challenge about it that dares the viewer to see the man in the image as anything less than equal. Some have criticized the image as being too aggressive, I see it as assertive and representing a will of a part of society that is now standing up and gaining an ever-growing voice.
Maybe now the photographer has changed their gaze. Maybe now we can start to see the person and not the disability in images? Time will tell.
I shall end this post with a thought. If, an egg called Eugene can command a record-breaking 52 million “likes” on Instagram, in just nine days, speaking up for social media anxiety and self-harm, then surely its time for photography to up its game, get out of its box and step up?
- Sontag, S. (2008). On photography. 3rd ed. London: Penguin Books, p.27.
- Sontag, S. (2008). On photography. 3rd ed. London: Penguin Books, p.2.
- Sontag, S. (2008). On photography. 3rd ed. London: Penguin Books, p.15.
- Dhss.alaska.gov. (2013). Disability History Exhibit: Panel Content. [online] Available at: http://dhss.alaska.gov/gcdse/pages/history/html_content_main.aspx [Accessed 2 Mar. 2019].
- Garson (2015). With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility – Quote Investigator. [online] Quoteinvestigator.com. Available at: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/07/23/great-power/ [Accessed 2 Mar. 2019].
- Philosiblog. (2015). The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision – philosiblog. [online] Available at: https://philosiblog.com/2015/09/03/the-only-thing-worse-than-being-blind-is-having-sight-but-no-vision/ [Accessed 2 Mar. 2019].
- Fig 1 – Unknown. (1800’s). Lone disabled girl. (source media)
- Fig 2 – Unknown. (1972). Mental health ward. (source media)
- Fig 3 – Cooke, M,D. (1946). A patient sits inside Ohio’s Cleveland State Mental Hospital. (source media)
- Fig 4 – Krüger,L,D. (2014). Real Prettiness. (source media)
- Fig 5 – Rankin, I. (2018). Here I am. (source media)
- Fig 6 – Godfrey, C. (2018). Eugene the Egg. (image source)