Dinara Assignment 1 Tutor report reflections

I have been using all the time I have available, which is essentially weekends, to do as much reading as possible. Not only does this inform my approach to disability, it also means that I am not wasting my time since I have been put off by all the participants because they are too busy, ill, depressed, have financial issues or other excuses. After a really positive beginning, I have begun to feel that perhaps these subjects aren’t interested after all. The problem is that I have already embarked on this so I’ll just have to grit my teeth and carry on!

I was forced to change the project direction because of a lack of real substance to claims against the medical profession. Since CP is caused by birth trauma, I thought I had a case. Instead, I’ve decided to show these people are leading normal lives, and not make them out to be charity cases, ‘supercrips‘ or ‘inspiration porn‘ (this is really difficult to achieve – to show their daily struggles without portraying them as either pitiful or admirable).

Actually, I had identified 3 areas – burden on society (self-worth, independence), occupation (which confers a sense of identity in contemporary society) and sexuality (linked to wanting to make oneself attractive, being in a meaningful relationship, and parenthood). The three areas in fact feed into one another, since independence can be linked to financial autonomy employment gives, while self-worth and wanting to make oneself look attractive means that one takes an interest in fashion and goes shopping, for which money is essential. The point is that unobvious discrimination excludes disabled people from transacting in many areas of society, but just like anyone else they want to go out and have fun, be entertained, participate in contemporary cultural life.

Achieving a sense of normalcy is what all the subjects are trying to do, and I communicate with them on a level. In this way I build up a good rapport and am thus able to gain their trust. The sense of normalcy is also conveyed by the kinds of activities they are engaged in – work, play, family, friends – and by making no attempt to stylise the images in any way, since the visuals must also display normalcy. Personal narrative rather than traditional documentary is also a way for subjects to be empowered, reclaiming their identities, their bodies and their voices (something that has been pivotal in civil rights and other challenges to discrimination).

It is worth considering the autobiographical narrative as a response to what Davis (1995) calls the ‘inquisitive gaze’, the inherent requirement that impairments must be in some way ‘explained.’ On the other hand, Davis also points out the dangers of placing disability within a Bakhtinian ‘chronotope’, a time sequence, since “by narrativizing an impairment, one tends to sentimentalize it and link it to the bourgeois sensibility of individualism and the drama of an individual story.” As such the physical fact of impairment becomes an individual drama to be played out – a ‘hero’ or ‘victim’ or ‘love’ story. The personal narratives of disabled persons that I propose would avoid any such narrative tendencies, empowering them to challenge prevailing simplistic readings of disability, whilst including mobility aids as visual tropes to remind the viewer of the impairment without drawing unnecessary attention to it (see Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography).

Working collaboratively means that both during and post production, the subjects and I have a very clear idea of what we want to show. This makes it very easy to select which images will be used in the final photofilms. I have used the example of Dinara not wishing to be shown interviewed as an example to my other subjects. Reading about informed consent has also inspired me to get consent forms signed only after the photofilms have been completed and both parties are happy with the results.

I hope to show the ordinariness of Kazakhstan through my imagery without directly aiming to do so. Pictures of people going about their daily business will of necessity include backgrounds and scenery that evoke a sense of place. I also do not wish for western viewers to seek the exotic in the work, as this would double the condition of alterity for disabled subjects. Nonetheless, there will be visual reminders that this is not a western country (Cyrillic script, architecture, for example) without drawing unnecessary attention to the differences.

Located this conversation online after my tutor quoted Liz Wells as saying that a criterion for evaluating art is whether it makes you think differently about something of importance.

Liz: Rhetorically it could be suggested that artistic creativity is about thinking outside the box, looking around the sides of issues, bringing different perceptions to bear. For me one of the criteria for evaluating art is whether imagery makes me think differently about something that matters.

John: Yes, and something that actually affects you in some way so that it changes some aspect of your life experientially in some respect.

Liz: Yes, even if only minimally

John: Yes its very important, in a small way, but its never going to change your life over night, or only very exceptionally. But that isn’t what you’d be looking for it to do.

Chris: But it can also affirm .For me it can strengthen a view that you have; maybe if you have an emerging notion of something that is relatively unexplored or undeveloped, seeing it and exploring it through the work can actually bring it on further. So it might not always make you think differently, It might actually empower you to think ‘yeah I am on the right track’ because there is something affirmative emerging from it.

John: In some ways it may just open questions up for you, make you think about them. This might not necessarily be just the ‘issue’ that is in front of you, but a quality of engagement that makes you think about whether or not the issue has any real concern for you.

To my mind this is more relevant as a three-way discussion than Wells’ statement taken out of the surrounding context. The artists have some valid points that they make as well – art can reinforce a concept that is beginning to take shape, and I think this is what happens during the production process as well. On the issue of engagement, I’m still wondering at the assessor’s conclusion that my work for the previous module was not engaging enough – is this because the issue was of no real importance to the viewers, lacking empathetic referents? Am I fully or partly to blame for that? Since the issue that I raised is of relatively parochial significance, perhaps an international audience would view it differently. If I had shown a more ‘pressing’ issue, or if the protagonists were in a more ‘desperate’ situation, would the work have been accepted differently? Who decides how engaging something is? Is that not a subjective evaluation of a piece of work? Surely if this was really the case it should have been pointed out to me by my tutor, who saw all 3 films and did not at any point express concern that they were ‘not engaging enough’ (about length we agreed, and I even shortened the final film by a whole minute after Peter had seen it). On the contrary, he assured me that I was highlighting an issue that was relatively unknown in the West.

I suspect the issue was more to do with length, and am therefore trying to keep these films to around the 3:00 – 3:30 time frame. The content should thus be clearer, more accessible and more focused. On the other hand, I’m not sure that just one photofilm will be enough for the assessment, and will certainly not be enough to explore the issues that I am dealing with. I aim to show a variety of ages, sexes and disabilities to give a fuller picture of the area under discussion.

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