While my last posts have been tentative little explorations about the representation and politics of the body this post looks at the other side of that same coin – being seen and looked at. In Photos as Active Agents: the Politics of Staring Garland-Thompson makes the following point:
“Photographs seem to be transparent windows onto reality that ensnare truth. But like all representations, photographs organize our perceptions, shaping the objects as they depict them by using conventions of presentation that invoke cultural ideas and expectations. Photographs evoke the familiar only to make it seem strange, eliciting a response Alan Trachtenberg describes as ‘astonishment mingling with recognition’.”
The article identified four ways that disabled people are defined:
- Exotic: here the focus in son the physical differences disabled people exhibit. This creates distance and offers viewers images of the unfamiliar and different. This is disabled people as freaks and monsters.
- Wondrous: A more modern take on the freak is a more benevolent acceptance of the disabled person that the author labels Wondrous. Here the focus continues to be on difference but the aim is to elicit amazement, admiration, and sentimentality for the “courageous overcomer”.
- Sentimental: This focus is on physical differences but in an attempt to elicit sympathy, charity, pity, or inspiration.
- Realistic: This last focus is in opposition to the others and attempts to reduce the emphasis on differences “realist disability photography is the rhetoric of equality,” (Garland-Thompson) as it attempts to position images of disability as everyday and mundane.
I don’t fully agree with Garland-Thompson’s analysis. I think her categorisation is okay but doesn’t go far enough. She does not address how disabled people take photos or define themselves with these definitions and so focuses wholly on the ascribed identity and so excludes the issues of the presentation of self. Some disabled people may see themselves as victims, others as social outcasts while yet other may deny their disability and define themselves as non disabled, and yet others accept the reality of their impairment but distinguish it from the social barriers they may face.
I think any comprehensive categorisation should include issues of false consciousness and the reality of how disabled people interpret their experience of life. For example, do they suffer from a false consciousness and define themselves as freaks and hide their impairments from those around them? Do they try to promote a realist approach? Or do they see themselves as supercrips – super achievers?
Secondly realist photography as she defines it omits the physical, psychological and sociological reality that I experience. Some of these experiences are closer to people who are ill than healthy disabled people. Take this weekend as a typical example. I bled a lot and had to go to hospital. Accordingly the frailty of my body along with the chronic and acute physical pain, and constant psychological pressure to manage the frailty, social expectations and stigma, all play important parts in affecting one’s sense of self, and social image. Yet the author doesn’t address these.
But these weaknesses don’t discount her main points: we both create and reflect our realities and photos do the same and it is with these thoughts in mind that I will turn to representing my body. This means that representations of the body are inextricably linked to ideas of identity and this is where I will go next: identity.
Garland-Thomson, R. (2002) ‘The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography’ in Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Eds. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson.