This section explains my general approach – the why and how I photograph – rather than a discussion of specific techniques or equipment. My approach may appear a little stiff and unorthodox.
I believe my photographs are as much about me as they are about the people, places, and events depicted so it makes sense to describe my background and the way I work as much as it does to describe how or why I photograph.
Like everyone I make sense of the world through my senses but for as long as I can remember I’ve been absorbed with all things visual. This kind of absorption has served as a two-way mirror that shapes how I experience the world whilst simultaneously reflecting my cognitive and emotional state. The insights gained from contemplating this mirror have changed over time as I have become engaged in different activities and environments, but close links between visual imagery, what I know about the world and how I think about myself, have been a constant feature of my life.
My training and experience as a visual sociologist and an artist shaped my general thinking about image making:
- there is no ‘one-way’ of making a photograph that has ascendancy over all other ways
- we don’t ‘see’, we ‘perceive’ imagery since the former is a biological norm and the latter culturally and psychologically informed
- all photographs having many possible meanings, although the photographer may have a preferred or intended meaning
- a photograph does not show how things look. It’s an image reproduced by
a mechanical/electronic device, at a very specific moment, in a particular context by a person working within a set of personal parameters.
This dry and measured approach is complemented by my enthusiasm, determination and belief in my work, which coupled with my visual instincts, form the bedrock of practice that shapes everything here. Visual instinct is central to creating photographs that have veracity and enlighten and not merely to produce images that to look good.
The ‘Voice’ of People with Disabilities
My intension in combining photography and words is to respond to problems stemming from disablism. I feel the ‘voice’ and agency of the least able in society is often missing from past and current social and political debates. I feel that what is needed is the adoption of a participatory visual, sensory, and arts-based approach to work alongside the most vulnerable, underrepresented, and least researched and understood members of society. There are photographers and artists with disabilities rich in ideas but they are disabled because their work is not sufficiently recognised or represented in galleries or via books or the visual media.
The central premise of the ‘Different Lives’ project is already known to people with disabilities – ‘You are much more than your disability’. This project is not about pity or romanticising, or making heroes, or focusing on spectacular imagery of physical or mental disability. It’s about treating people with disabilities with dignity, respect, understanding, and fairness. It’s their voice and those of their families, not mine or yours or other photographers, that should speak through the images in ‘Different Lives’.
Basic Beliefs and Approaches:
- Coming from a visual sociologist/researcher background I think in terms of sampling and importantly avoiding extreme case sampling which too often focuses on extreme disability for extreme stand-alone photographs. The people depicted here are ordinary people who just happen to be disabled and who want to tell their story.
- I believe that people are expert in their own lives. I adopt a participatory approach with a view to photographing everyday taken-for-granted lives. I could and should give people with disabilities cameras and let them tell their own visual stories. There are good blind photographers; there are outstanding shots taken from the perspective of a wheelchair users; and people on the autistic spectrum who have used photography and other art forms to express emotions and feelings they have difficulty expressing verbally or in written form. But here I’ll accept the limitations of an outsider working with disabled people and their families and take responsibility for its limitations and failings.
- Throughout I used experts in key areas to enable access. In Mongolia good translators who are knowledgeable about the culture were very important. For the Riding for the Disabled work I relied on people I’d known for many years, who knew me, and knew the people I wanted to photograph who wanted to tell their stories. They were ‘gatekeepers’ who shared my values yet safeguarded the people with disabilities and their families.
- Apparently small things are sometimes very important. Knowing how to behave around horses, recognising and respecting customs, remembering to take along small gifts when visiting a Mongolian family, and how to behave in a Ger, are all important. Dressing quietly with respect for the Islamic culture was obviously central to Kazakh people in Mongolia. I never use flash or artificial lighting, and rarely use a tripod. I never use telephoto lenses to as a way of taking photos without people knowing. I miss many ’good’ photographic opportunities with this approach but that’s acceptable to me. I resist using artistic licence and instead use my fine art background to reflect the important but difficult concepts that represent ‘Different Lives’. I don’t want to make great photographs that are lies
- I don’t use intimidation or shocks or tricks so that people are thrown off guard and show their ‘real’ self or the self that is behind a ‘mask’. I seek out a range of facial expressions and body language juxtaposed with enlightening backgrounds or contexts. The notion of ‘time sampling’ was useful to me here. Naturalism is important concept to me. I feel the need to be with someone for a long time before they can trust me and I can begin to understand them. There are times when photographers ‘grab and run’ with good reason but not here. I explain to gatekeepers and others what I’m attempting with my project and what I want from them and what I can and can’t do for them. Only at this point do I take out my small quiet camera. Fortunately I don’t have the constraints of commercial or press photographers to come back with the picture at all costs. This gives me the freedom to shoot over a period of years if necessary as is the case of the Mongolian and Riding projects. However, there are times when I’ve needed to work rapidly and instinctively for example in ‘Three Neurotypicals and an Aspie’ portrait and when shooting Magpi and her family in their winter home in Mongolia.
- I try to be aware of the significance of foreground and background information and include, exclude, and juxtapose, where appropriate. The photographs taken in Magpi’s family’s winter home, in the Mongolian section, for example, are taken to represent different physical perspectives (family and guests looking down on Magpi and Magpi looking up at her family and guests) and emotional elements of everyday living (Magpi confused, possibly jealous, unhappy, but also later her showing humour and happiness; juxtaposed with her brother and his wife entertaining guests, laughing, being proud of their baby and including Magpi).
- I try to be a sensory photographer when attempting to understand/tell how people with disabilities makes sense of the world differently, different not less. This might be simply telling their story by focusing on colour and texture, for example to emphasise the lonely and difficult life of Mrs Anh (Portraits) through her hands, face and clothes. Sometimes it’s by photographing texture, space, and the quality of sounds. Blind people ‘see’ by counting and rhythm, picking up textures and tactile information through their feet or hands, or sound bouncing back to them from walls or gaps in walls, and tall ceiling rooms sound different to low ceiling rooms. If you lose one sense the other senses are often accentuated. Sensory photography is different but possible.
- A photograph, by holding a moment still, gives the viewer time to interpret. But it also means that the viewer has to work and be active not passive. For many images there is no instant gratification and even accompanying words of explanation are often insufficient. Although ‘Four people, Peter with Judy and Mike’ has words of explanation I expect the viewer to work hard. The background is rich in visual evidence, a virtual cultural inventory, containing two people reading in a large room, with a rocking chair, pictures on the wall, and a grandfather clock. The title is clue to my preferred interpretation and an encouragement to seek an explanation. There are two people in the background and two Peters. Cover up one side of his face and you see the disabled Peter that most see – his blind eye looking to some distant place and an unusually shaped cranium. Cover up the other side and you see an eye observing you – this the Peter who is both mysterious and wise who is so much more than his disability.
- Photographing people on the autistic spectrum is difficult. It’s called ‘the hidden disability’ because they show few outwardly signs of disability especially in a still image (see Anna in ‘Portraits’). Sensory problems are now considered an important aspect of autism. To function and participate in the world that surrounds us we need to use our senses. They help us to understand the environment and how to respond within it. They play a significant role in determining what actions we take in a particular situation. Imagine what happens when one, or all, of your senses are intensified or are not present at all. How would you feel if your hearing was unable to differentiate between the person you are talking to and the other 50 people in the room? It would be like a sound traffic jam. This is often referred to as ‘sensory integration disorder’ where some senses are heightened well beyond the norm whilst others are non-functioning. This is the case for most individuals on the autistic spectrum. I photograph people with autism individually (‘when you’ve met one person with autism you’ve met one person with autism’) yet take into account their common characteristics. I may mix sensory photography with symbolic imagery (see the Aspie under the painful bright fluorescent lighting, being part of the fabric/bricks of society and feeling on the periphery or outside of society and un-noticed by ‘normal’ people in Three Neurotypicals and an Aspie’). I find it necessary to break free from common practices of documentary photography and to develop a different way of seeing and representing Different Lives.
Who is the photograph for? An audience can be a section of a population reached via newspapers or magazines; it could be a country’s youth seen through phones and tablets; and it could be lovers of art and culture and seen hanging in exhibitions and galleries.
The audience for the ‘Different Lives’ project is broad and inclusive (see for example ‘Anargul’ in Portraits) since the message is global and meant for everyone. Some images here are aimed at a much smaller audience. There are images where the audience is 1 in 500 of the population. ‘Three Neurotypicals and an Aspie’, for eample, in ‘Portraits’ is aimed essentially at and understood by those with Asperger Syndrome. Equally, the same image could have an audience of one – the person whose portrait it is. I’m happy if the international visual language of photography interpreted through different cultural lenses is understood by many but I’m also happy if an image created for one person with a disability is understood by that one person.
Working ethically and treating people with respect is central to ‘Different Lives’. A key aim of the project is to empower and give voice to marginalised groups and individuals, not to hurt or damage them in any way. Bearing in mind that I’m working with some of the most vulnerable members of any society here are a number of issues I’ve considered and endeavoured to apply:
- This project is about telling people’s stories but within the moral requirement to respect autonomy and to protect those with diminished autonomy. Beneficence and the requisite to do no harm and to maximise possible benefits to people who lead different lives, are pivotal.
- Cultural pluralism and complexity are taken into account. Ethical decisions made on the basis of care, compassion, and a desire to act in ways that benefit the individual or group, is the ‘glue’ that binds Different Lives rather than following universalist principles or absolute norms and rules that may govern ethical decision making. I seek out collaborative relationships that involves an ethics of care approach.
- I adopt the most common principles that underpin ethical codes of practice including mutual respect, non-coercion and non-manipulation, and support for democratic values.
- Islam is the primary faith in western Mongolia where the Kazakh people live. It is important that prior to taking a photograph of a married woman that they seek their husband’s approval before agreeing. Later I seek the woman’s agreement too. Sharia law deals with Islamic law and is concerned with day-to-day aspects of life including social issues, family, dress and behavioural codes, but it is not explicit on the topic of photography. There are multiple interpretations of Sharia law and different countries will have different interpretations. I rely on the guidance of Mongolian Kazakh interpreters and ‘gatekeepers’.
- I do not offer money or bribes. The photographs are not for sale. I retain copyright of my photographs.
- This is not the place for clandestine photography or the collection of photographs covertly using hidden cameras or long lenses.
- Informed consent is a useful concept but difficult in practice. When the person concerned has a disability and I feel they are unable to provide informed consent I will ask a parent or guardian or close family member. Photographing children requires special consideration. I seek parental/guardian consent first. The notion of a person’s ‘capacity’ to give consent is a judgement call that relates to all vulnerable members of a society, for example the young, older people, as well as those with disabilities.
- The issue of confidentiality and anonymity is discussed with participants since it’s often impossible to guarantee given the amount of visual evidence in an image. All the people in ‘Different Lives’ want to be known and are pleased with the notion that in telling their stories they are helping others with disabilities.
- Images placed on the internet may be used in ways unintended by me or people with disabilities and their families, with consequential distress or even damage to their reputation. This is one of the times I use my knowledge and experience to explain some not so obvious issues that may arise. Once images are in the public realm we in ‘Different Lives’ have little control over how images might be interpreted by the audience, or may be used for different purposes by others. Thus placing photographs from this project on the internet “intrinsically turns pictures into public property and therefore diminishes one’s power over their presentational context” (van Dijck, 2008). This means I need to take particular care to ensure everyone involved understands the implications of consenting to the display of images used on-line. This is important and onerous.
- A book, an exhibition, and this website are what we hope for