Re-presentation, disability and gender: Modern representations of disabled women in art images

In my last post I got to a point where I am clear that the representation of women in both important and popular imagery has been quite limited to white westernised, idealised versions of pretty women or motherhood shaped largely by the artistic style and social fashions of the times.

Today I want to cover similar ground in terms of how disabled women have been represented in both important and popular art but focussing on modern representations as my personal experience is that I am currently defined in very limited person centric distorted ways as a disabled man and so I want to see if this is true for women. So can we see any dominant approaches to the representation of disabled women in modern approaches to important art and photography or are they quite diverse?

In Picturing Disability Robert Bogan aptly describes how imagery of disability has been limited in to images that are used to show difference “them” rather than “us” in my words (2012). The difference has been used for many purposes: selling; charity; entertainment; politics – but they are all about difference and represent this through presenting disabled people as freaks, victims, sub humans or monsters. Indeed Robert Knoll demonstrates that even the modern photographers often seen to be more humanist such as Wingrand or Arbus used disabled people to generate anxiety (the anxious object) and promote the idea of difference (Knoll, p143).

Knoll goes up to the 1980s in his research and I want to show just how this sense of difference seems to work by comparing the work of Diane Arbus with that of Jo Spence. I have selected these two photographers for two particular reasons. They are both women – something quite rare in terms of important photographers in the late twentieth century; and some of their imagery can appear superficially similar.

Arbus and Spence
Here are two photos: one by Arbus and the other by Spence. I can see lots of similarities between the two photos at a superficial level. For example, both photos offer the opposite of what Barthes called the unary photo (1981 p41). The images disturb by their form as much as their subject matter. In Arbus’s image the off balance horizontal and vertical lines, in Spence’s the frame dissecting the face.

Masked woman in a wheelchair D. Arbus 1970 and Narratives of Dis-ease (Exiled), by J. Spence and T. Sheard, 1990image

I was shocked when I first saw this photo created by Diane Arbus: it annoyed me. Visibly disabled people face prejudice, our difference is culturally marked by stigma. Yet our common human characteristics should override any difference we have with others. The way to connect with people is most often through the face – the eyes – so when I saw this photo of a wheelchair user – the universal symbol of disability – with a mask hiding the subject’s face, I felt that photographer had not only chosen to create a photo that amplifies the sense of difference and allows no connection to be made between viewer and subject by the use of a mask, but by selecting a Halloween type of freak mask she was continuing a long held photographic tradition of defining this disabled person as a freak (Garland-Thomson 2002, Bogdan 2012). Thus the photo reinforced my sense of stigma and oppression and felt a bit like a personal attack.

Compare that image to Jo Spence’s: both share the same subject matter; women, both share masks. Yet whereas Arbus’ photo used the photo to create spectacle and difference, Spence’s is more measured. She uses labels alongside the mask and its associated symbolism with her scared and cancerous body to anchor meaning and to simultaneously speak about the notions of beauty, disease, physical corruption, stigma and gender relations. Thus Spence’s photo is a discourse (Barthes, 1977 p83) whereas Arbus image offers the viewer the spectacle of monstrous difference and freakery.

Cotton noted that, since the 1970s the theory of photography has been concerned with the idea that photographs can be understood as a process of signification and cultural coding that create reference points in the interface between self and society (2004, p191). Thus by considering the work of Spence at a purely primary level we would understand her images as unappealing and similar in style to Arbus’. Yet if we view them as visual discourses the opposite conclusion is realised.

Bogdan, R. (2012) Picturing Disability, Published by Syracuse University Press

Knoll, J. (2012) Art for Art’s Sake in Picturing Disability, Published by Syracuse University Press

Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida, published by Vintage,

Arbus, D. (1970) Masked Woman In A Wheelchair in D Arbus, Diane Arbus An Aperture Monograph, Published by Aperture 1972 (2012 edn) illus.

Spence, J,(1990) Narratives of Dis-ease (Exiled), Available here: [Accessed on 25/11/2014] illus

Garland-Thomson, R. (2002) The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetoric’s of Disability in Popular Photography Modern Language Association

Bogdan, R. (2012) Picturing Disability by Syracuse University Press

Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text, Published by Fontana

Cotton, C. (2004, 2009 edn.) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. Thames and Hudson


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
This entry was posted in Research and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s