Photography, cameras, (dis)ability and empowerment. Redux.Written by John Macpherson
I am very moved by the fact that so many of you out there have been touched by my recent post. However it was only one half of the tale that I told.
There’s another part to it that I think may be worth telling. I mulled over whether to mention it in my first post, but only briefly, and easily decided against it because of my fear that it would distract from the most important aspect of the story – the work of my two photographer friends. They undertook huge personal challenges to do this work; no creative work is risk-free but for marginalized people the risks are perhaps higher, but it would be fair to say the rewards can be much greater. They confronted a difficult learning process to master the use of cameras, faced the social challenge of engaging with many people in our community, and as a consequence they produced some wonderfully insightful work that has integrity and longevity (and humour in abundance) – your responses, many of them personal communications to me, prove that. This story is really all about Malcolm and Tommy, their creative opportunity and their work, and nothing else. I felt they deserved to enjoy the limelight once more.
Apart from that I don’t want to appear as a whingeing git, and for this to be seen as some sour grapes tirade, because I think the implications of this, for the education system and for marginalized people, is much more important. If you are a jaded educator maybe this will make you perk up and try to deliver more enthusiastically, if you’re one of the students “who don’t give a shit” that duckrabbit mentioned here perhaps you’ll either try harder, or give your place to someone who really wants to have an education, while you go off and get some life under your belt and realize what a terrific opportunity you just wasted. If you’re in a great college or uni with motivated and experienced lecturers, be glad and suck all the good stuff out of them. And as you read this keep in mind none of the following is the result of bolts of lightning, falling rocks, or wayward seagulls crashing into people. ALL of it is the result of the actions of people, who had choices, and who made the choices they did for various reasons, and so much of this could have been very very different. This is all about us, and what we do, and what is done in our names by the system we’re all part of and pay our taxes to support.
And anyway if I tell you some more ‘stuff’ I get to include another selection of Malcolm and Tommy’s excellent photographs, and that’s got to be a bloody good thing!
I’m going to try to relate this objectively, for reasons that will become obvious. It might explain a few of the reasons why I feel so strongly about photography and its role as a creative activity, particularly for marginalized people. It will also help to underline for some of you involved in education the importance of providing further support for people you introduce to creative activity. Creativity is not just for Christmas, its for life. We don’t take that fact seriously enough, and that’s a real shame in my opinion.
It is also a real shame that acts of prejudice against people with disabilities come not only from ignorant members of the public as I described in my previous post, but also from the very system created to support and protect them. And what is unforgivable is that the actions of ‘the system’, as I’ll relate here, cannot be excused on the grounds of ignorance, because they were deliberate, and intentionally destructive.
This photography project work formed the main submission for my final year of Social Work training (a 3 year course) and was undertaken in my work place. The delivery of the final year teaching was in college on block release of either one or two weeks and was simply unacceptable. The college I attended was a shambles, their performance utterly shameful. Lecturers did not turn up, those who did often had no experience relevant to our subject area and could offer no useful input. How irrelevant? How about a one hour lecture on ‘stress in concrete structures’ that we had to endure because the only available lecturer was from the building dept? On a Social Work course? No thank you.
And as for the lectures we received on phrenology and astrology as valid diagnostic methods to use with people with disabilities……this stuff wasn’t just bad, it was dangerous. It was a waste of my time, weeks and weeks of it. It was also a serious problem because my class were contractually obliged to reflect college teaching in our final year project submission, and with virtually no teaching having occurred we could not evidence anything of any real worth. We were effectively facing certain failure of the course, and the loss of our professional qualification as Social Workers. And so my class complained, in writing to both the College and CCETSW. For our troubles we were wheeled into a classroom and confronted by the College’s very angry Principal and solicitor and threatened with legal action for libel if we didn’t retract our complaint. I told them no, and that speaking personally I’d happily see them in court. They backed down. But didn’t forget.
I submitted my final year work (the photography project) shortly afterwards. And it was failed outright with no explanation. The rules allow a rewrite or an oral exam. I asked for either, and was refused both. I was told to repeat the final year and do another project, but not photography-related, this despite them having formally approved the photo project at the outset, which I’d been contractually obliged to outline in detail in writing.
My own Social Work employer who collaborated closely with the College in providing the training and final assessment, refused to allow the project with the two men to continue in my workplace as I’d hoped it would, and I was forbidden to continue it. And just to rub my nose in it they threatened me with dismissal, put me on probation, and I received a written warning about my conduct. Coincidentally a few days after my formal warning I’d arranged a public exhibition of Malcolm and Tommy’s photography work in our community in the local library – big event with personal invitations to all the employers who’d allowed us access to their premises, as well as the various other photo subjects we’d encountered in the street, all of whom turned up. But despite personal invitations going out to all the Social Work management team, none came, they deliberately boycotted the event. Not one member of Social Work management came to that exhibition to see what I’d been doing and to view the excellent work produced by Malcolm and Tommy.
Forbidden to continue, their creativity stifled, the two men suffered terribly from the removal of the project from their lives, Malcolm particularly, and he became very depressed (in the proper clinical sense). It was an awful situation. One I felt more than a little guilt about but was powerless to do anything to remedy, although my colleagues and I tried our best.
Having had the work rejected outright, and told I could dispose of it, I then entered it into an arts competition I’d seen, for Endeavour and Initiative in the Arts for People with a Disability. We were well outwith the rules, but I thought what the heck, nothing to lose, and removed the academic content, and simply entered the two men’s work, allowing their images to speak for themselves as a body of fine creative work done by two marginalized people.
Almost a year later (still working to pass my repeat final year) I was informed that it had won first prize in the competition in a category that the organizers had created specifically so that we could win, so impressed were they! Ha! The two men were overnight catapulted into a merry-go-round of sensitively staged public events, significant cash awards, and ended up on tv, and all over the media and suddenly everyone thought it a hugely impressive project. Including my employers! They were on the receiving end of numerous journalists wanting to interview someone, anyone, who knew something about the work. And of course none of the SW management knew anything because they’d refused to be a part of it. Delightfully ironic.
Cue very embarrassed Director of SW Disability Services ordering my manager to order me (yes, ordering me!) to get them up to speed on what I’d been doing as they were all trying to answer journalist’s questions, and had no answers “and we are very embarrassed” and dropping strong hints that this was somehow my fault. I’ll not repeat exactly my response, but at least one four letter word beginning with f was included, closely followed by the word ‘off’. But I did eventually dig them out of the hole they’d dug themselves and had some subtle ‘fun’ at their expense whilst doing so (well would you pass on such a golden opportunity?). No sinking to their level though, just some gentle mischief: I’m not small and my work history prior to Social Work was the Glasgow shipyards (welding frigates for HM) and then the building trade (I’m a qualified carpenter) and I’m not easily intimidated, so lets just say that a few soft-handed SW managers may have had badly bruised fingers after we shook for the press photos they all wanted to appear in with Malcolm, Tommy and me. The limpness of their handshakes was all I needed to experience to know where the moral high ground lay. If you’ve never tried it, there is great fun to be had by shaking hands with ‘powerful’ people and then refusing to let their hand go when THEY want to, the simple act of holding on to their appendage, tightly, and dictating the terms of the interaction through your touch is strangely, but delightfully disempowering.
A journalist from Community Care magazine then picked up on the arts award and did a piece on it, and coincidentally she turned out also to be a freelance investigative writer working for a quality broadsheet newspaper (she is now a well respected BBC news editor). And she was intrigued and ultimately astonished at the story that emerged, and investigated thoroughly, poring over my academic record (no problems there) and questioned the college and unearthed a lot of inconsistencies. The full page investigation that was subsequently printed in the national press revealed the whole sorry mess, with various of the culprits put on the spot and running for cover, with very red faces.
What makes this sad tale even worse is that this was not the consequence of one individual acting alone, but numerous people in several organizations cooperating, deliberately and with considerable malice. And thanks to their vindictiveness at least one person suffered health issues, my staunchly loyal Study Supervisor who had overseen all my studies, required medical intervention for stress-related depression and had the trajectory of her career significantly altered, with repercussions that lasted for several years. And of course most important of all, my two photographers, who struggled to cope with their acutely emotional response to circumstances they could barely understand.
That the so-called ‘caring profession’ could do this to two men with disabilities for whom they were responsible, made me very very angry. And I remain so. But none of the perpetrators are named here, deliberately. I’m happy to forget them. They have sunk into the obscurity they deserve. The only two names that matter in all of this are Malcolm and Tommy, who had an opportunity to shine, and grasped it, and in some small ways it changed their lives.
And whats the point of all of this? Well its underlined for me that creativity matters. It matters a lot. And the experience my photographers and I shared has reinforced my belief that access to creative education is vital. However, the quality of teaching that’s offered needs to be consistent, appropriate and above all imaginative. And whether that’s for people with disabilities or so-called ‘normal’ people is irrelevant, we all deserve the best shot at it we can possibly get. But there’s one key thing I’ve learned, if you undertake work like this and introduce anyone to creative activity, but particularly vulnerable people, think very very carefully about the ways in which you can maintain the momentum.
Introducing people to the rewards of creative activity only to abruptly remove it, is not only unfair but can be seriously damaging. Arthur Koestler wrote in ‘The Act of Creation‘, about the notion of either our acceptance of “the comforts of sterility” or feeling and feeding “the pangs of creativity”. And I think we do well to heed that. Creativity can become a hunger, and the making of art can feed it. The personal growth that results from such ‘artistic nourishment’ can be remarkable, and empowering.
But as for photography in particular – well I’ve learned the hard way that it’s an activity that is well worth the effort pursuing, it teaches you a lot about the world, and about yourself, about the things that move you and other people, about your fears, and your prejudices.
And sometimes it teaches you a hell of a lot about the prejudices of others.
One last thing I’d like to consider for a moment. Many viewers express surprise at this work, particularly the media, who struggle to find ways to accurately describe the people behind it. “Disabled people make wonderful art!” is the kind of headline I’ve come to expect, with some dismay, and have often tried to talk them out of. It seems our expectation of such marginalized people is so low that we’re surprised when they demonstrate any creative flair, and the qualifier ‘disabled’ has to be included so we get the message. The truth is that marginalized people don’t often express themselves in this way because we, society, deny them the opportunity. It’s that simple. Shouldn’t the headlines more accurately read “Shameful system denies people creative opportunity.” ?
As one commentator remarked to me about people with disabilities “I’m not prejudiced, I think they are just like us“. And some of you may applaud that sentiment, whilst perhaps missing the implicit contradiction. I know I used to, so don’t worry, we can all learn to think differently. I think also that what marginalized people show us in ‘simple’ work like this somehow unsettles us, because in showing us ‘their world’ we see only our world. The realization that marginalized people ARE just like us evokes more than a twinge of guilt.
There is no ‘them and us’ in all of this stuff. There is only us. And its about time we bloody well realized that.