Photography, cameras, (dis)ability and empowerment.Written by John Macpherson
Length of this post: long. Words: a lot. Pictures: more than a few. Apologies for that: none.
Some years ago I undertook a photography project with two men with ‘learning disabilities’. Tommy, a man with Down Syndrome, was moving into community living after more than 20 years in an institution. The other man, Malcolm, had suffered meningitis when young and it had caused brain damage. Malcolm was regarded locally as ‘the village idiot’ because of his rather unorthodox behaviour, not helped by his epileptic seizures and somewhat dishevelled appearance. But he was well respected by many and at least one prominent local businessman quietly ensured Malcolm had a decent new winter coat every few years (one of the benefits of living in a small community).
However this shabby exterior masked an astonishing brain and his abilities, rather ironically I think, were known only to a certain sector of the community – those who frequented the betting shop where Malcolm ‘worked’ off and on as a bookie’s clerk. Malcolm could calculate incredibly complicated odds, involving each way bets, multiple odds and roll-ups ALL in his head, and spectacularly quickly, and he was never wrong. This ability spilled over into crosswords and car number plates, and Malcolm could breeze through most cryptic crosswords with ease no matter how complex, and recall the car numbers of everyone he’d ever met. Whatever damage the meningitis had caused to some parts of his cortex, it had triggered neural activity in others that was remarkable. Including a well-developed and infectiously impish sense of humour.
And so we set out on our photographic project. The idea was simple – to introduce Tommy to the community he would live in, through photographing the various people who provide the day to day support we all rely on – the bin man, the doctor, the minister, the bus driver, the shopkeeper etc. The idea was that this exploration would introduce Tommy to the various people whom he’d meet on a daily basis in his new life, but do so through the medium of an ‘intellectual’ activity, photography, which would introduce Tommy on the basis of his abilities rather than any perceived disabilities. For Malcolm it was all about something he loved: meeting people, talking, interacting, laughing, basically ‘getting the craic’, and maybe doing some artistic stuff into the bargain. Differing aims for each man, but through a common activity.
So we engaged in a process of learning how to use cameras (a Nikon slr and a Ricoh compact, both using HP5) and devising and sending out letters to try to gain access to various private situations such as factories, distilleries, railway yards etc. And then, permissions obtained, we started actually photographing, in ‘private’ locations and in public.
The resulting work was utterly astonishing and went on to be toured nationally winning the two men a major arts award. But what surprised me and taught me a huge lesson (amongst many other lessons) was the reaction from people when they were confronted by the camera. One specific situation was in a shop when the assistant, who knew Malcolm well and had put him out of the shop several times previously for trying to kiss her – an old trick of his, said “What are you doing with a camera Malcolm!” and Malcolm explained about the project whilst I hung back behind a shelf aisle out of sight and listened. “There’s no film in that” she went on laughing. “Away with you, you rascal“. And Malcolm calmly did as I’d suggested which was to get the subject to move to a suitable background, and as the woman did as she was asked, she continued to say “Ha ha there’s no film in that camera!“. But she did as she was told! And both Malcolm and Tommy took her photograph.
And I was astonished. Normally Malcolm without a camera giving directions to someone would be ignored, but here now holding a Nikon he was empowered in some rather delightful way. The camera had somehow legitimized his intrusion into the ‘normal’ world in a way that I found remarkable.
This happened several times subsequently, and each time reinforced my growing awareness of the totemic value of cameras. When we returned to the same shop a week later to present a nice 10×8 b&w print (which we did often) the woman was both delighted and bemused “So there was film in that camera! I thought you were kidding me Malcolm!”
These two men had the launch of their nationally toured exhibition in Edinburgh, in a big venue, with lots of people and in the visitors book was left the following comment:
“Despite the fact I’ve been earning a living with cameras for 30 years, having viewed this exhibition, I now realize I cannot call myself a photographer“.
We went to an Edinburgh pub in late afternoon following their exhibition, to have a meal before the long drive home. Tommy and I sat with the drinks I’d bought us whilst Malcolm went to check out the food menu on the wall behind the bar. I watched him wander over, doing his usual shuffle, daily papers stuffed into his pockets, and talking to himself “hmm pie ‘n chips, no , hm, maybe fish pie, ha fish! Well maybe steak and kidney pie?” and so on. Next thing I see is the barman shouting at Malcolm to get out. And what followed was shameful, and an insight into the prejudiced ignorance that people with any form of disability have to contend with.
I confronted the barman and the two giggling customers he was standing with and showing off to, and asked him what the problem was. “He’s drunk, he can get out” he said. I replied “No he’s not drunk, the only person here’s who’s not in control of himself is you.“. To which he replied “Ok all of you out I’m not serving you, he’s drunk“. I went back to the seat with Malcolm to where Tommy was sitting agitated and on the verge of tears, and he asked me “John why is that man throwing us out, Malcolm’s not been drinking he’s not done anything wrong?” A good question I thought so I turned to the barman who’d followed us, and asked him to explain to Tommy why he was throwing us out. Tommy stood looking expectantly at the barman, and put on the spot by it, the barman stammered in response, pointing to Tommy but directing his gaze to me “Well he can stay, but he’s out“, and indicated towards Malcolm. Anyway, briefly, I got very very angry and made my feelings quite clear about ignorance, intelligence, serving the public, rights and more, and we left, with no food and with a real damper put on the end of what should have been a wonderfully celebratory day. I have to confess we left more because I was on the verge of committing an assault. It was another insight for me into the ways that people with ‘hidden disabilities’ can be discriminated against, publicly, blatantly and with complete disregard for their feelings.
However the work the two individuals produced delighted, astonished and educated me, and many others, and their exhibition had a bit of a life in the years afterwards and was enjoyed by many people, giving the two men a lot of positive experiences into the bargain.
Tommy continues to enjoy independent living in the community, exploring far wider horizons than he’d ever imagined in the institution. Sadly Malcolm died a few years ago. He’d suffered a major and prolonged seizure which caused further brain damage leaving him unable to talk or walk, and with eating difficulties, but with his sense of humour still intact. Sadly his health deteriorated and he succumbed to further seizures which prematurely ended his life.
I’ve said it before and offer no apologies for saying it again: Photography is a remarkable activity. Cameras can open doors into new areas of experience that would otherwise be closed to you. But the process of becoming a photographer, and the act of doing photography, can change you in ways you cannot even imagine. These two men were chosen pretty much at random, and had no previous experience of photography, yet with modest support to explore their creativity they produced some remarkably perceptive work, and grew considerably as a result. How many other similar individuals, dismissed as having a ‘disability’, are denied this opportunity, and how much poorer are we as a society as a consequence?
Prejudice builds on the very few differences that separate us. Creativity can unite us on the basis of the far greater amount we have in common.
Creativity is more than just an indulgence, it’s a vital part of being alive.