Disabled artists/artists on disability

One of the things that I have been constantly coming up against is this idea of ‘normal’ society and how disabled people are regarded – in the words of Sontag, describing the subjects of Arbus’s photographs: “Do they see themselves, the viewer wonders, like that? Do they know how grotesque they are?” (1977, p 36).

As an able-bodied photographer, I am coming at the subject matter from an external point of view, with a gaze. I touched on this when I was looking at colonial photography and how the photograph was instrumental in exercising the will of the coloniser; the subjects were subjugated and had no voice. Apart from disabled artists working on disability, are there other artists working in this field?

I looked up some of the resources I had highlighted earlier.

The Burns archive is a collection of early medical photographs showing treatments and conditions. Part of the archive is dedicated to unusual conditions, and many images are similar to sideshow freak postcards of the Victorian era:


The images appear without captions or explanations, and as such the website serves merely as a kind of ghoulish gallery. Although some of the corrective or normalising interventions look mediaeval, in reality little has changed, only the appearance of the devices to stretch and support the site of impairment has been modified to make them look less daunting.

Works from a Dark Room I found for sale on Amazon, but apart from the cover there is nothing available to see online, and there is no critical review on Amazon either.

From the photograph that is used on the cover, I assume it is a photobook that features images of deformed and disabled. The write up states “Dignified, direct and unflinching portraits of people with

Incurably Romantic: “The people in Stehle’s photographs and interviews are severely disabled and live in an institution. They candidly discuss their joys and disappointments with regard to companionship, intimacy, friendship, love, and sexual relationships. In contrast to the media’s portrayal of “beautiful” lovers and romance, these people show through words and actions that all people need love, are worthy of it and capable of finding love. The photographs may be disturbing to some people. Schneider tries to anticipate questions and reactions and offers a basis for discussion of what is beautiful, normal, and deviant.”

Sounds like an interesting book and an interesting take on disability – much in the vein of what I’m trying to put together, although my work will be less romantic or intimate (I do have a few couples to explore, one of which has recently got married). “Disabled people are devalued as persons and become objects of reactions that isolate and segregate them from a variety of social settings… Being in love certainly is part of the human condition… well-known conventions of romantic love displayed in these images allow us to see the relationships and those who have them as involving something we can understand and share: arms entwined, sweet smiles, kisses and touches ex-changed…the experience of a broken heart…” (Joseph Schneider, Afterword)

The images are coupled with texts that quote the subjects, giving an insight into their intimacy rather than trying to analyse or explain their relationships:

‘Whenever I leave him I always say; ‘ Dan I love you…and he says ‘I love you too buttons…’ 

The neutral imagery serves to overlook the disabilities of the subjects (which are all quite visible in the photos), and instead focus on their relationships. A truly empowering project.

Of all the artists mentioned by Hevey, Nicholas Nixon is the only one that turned up any amount of decent images available online. I have analysed Nixon’s work before, when I looked at his pictures of the Brown sisters, taken over four decades. At that time (I don’t recall when it was, maybe in People and Place) I was not ready to tackle his more alarming images of patients with AIDS and other conditions. Now the moment has come.

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