New trends in the representation of disability

When I posted my comparison of the representation of Black and disabled people online here

It got me thinking about current trends in the representation of disability. Photographs tend to suggest disability through impairment or by generating meaning with supplementary text and so I would argue that disability is still heavily located within impairment and largely absent from photography. To connote disability visually disabled people are represented through impairment and the historically dominant prisms of heroes, freaks and victims. That is all through the person. Yet there are changes.

New realism – political beings
There is a new realism abroad in disabled photography. This development and grown in the social model of disability which presented it as a social construction distinct from impairment, led to the politicisation of the issue and many disabled people challenging the social nature of stigma (Shakespeare, 2002 pp9-28). In photography this resulted in many disabled people presenting themselves unashamedly for the camera lens and much of their own photography defining disabled people as political activists directly challenging their historical stigma. For example, here are images of visibly disabled people in street protests in Birmingham.

This unapologetic approach can also be seen in some portraiture. Just as some photographers like Jo Spence and Cindy Sherman offered new commentaries through their photography about the sexualised representation of women, a new representational trend has emerged that offers the viewer something other than the disabled person as a victim or freak. For example, Giles Duley presented himself straight, with no hiding of his impairments, in a self-portrait, but yet not a forensic or medical documentation of them. See it here

This is a new approach where the disabled person does not hide, or ignore their impairment, but nor do they wear it as a badge of pride. Rather they present it as an integral part of themselves. Of course Duley’s self portrait is not the same as Cindy Sherman’s staged female personas and it’s quite different in photographic approach to Spence’s self portraits, but yet it shares a lot with them by evoking thoughts about identities and roles and in being unashamed without being in your face.

But how could we visually speak of such issues without using the the body to trigger the connotation?

Shakespeare, T. and Watson, N. (2002) The social model of disability: an outdated ideology? In Research in Social Science and Disability Volume 2, pp. 9-28. Emerald Group Publishing Limited


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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