For the course I had recently finished (YOP) before embarking on this one, I made a series of photofilms on local artisans that were overdubbed with interview material where they explained a little about their crafts and why it is important that the folk arts and traditions are passed on to subsequent generations. By combining image and spoken word, I enabled the protagonists to retain their own voice, as such empowering them and avoiding ‘exotic’ readings of the individuals and their work.
Since then I became involved with a local rehabilitation and day centre for disabled persons (ARDI). After shooting a series of documentary style images for them, I understood the limitations of standalone images for conveying the idea that I wanted to convey – that these are people with the same hopes and dreams and ambitions as all of us.
Although the images I produced are colourful and positive, showing the children engaged and trying to work with (overcome?) their impairments, I didn’t think the images said enough and could be seen as merely reinforcing stereotypes rather than challenging them. I wanted to do something more about challenging the societal stereotypes that marginalise such people.
I realised that the images could still be read in multiple ways depending upon the contexts in which they were presented as well as (or in spite of) any textual ‘guidance’ in the form of captions, etc. My idea now is to present the photographs along with other documentary ‘evidence’, showing that these people have been marginalised often unnecessarily by certain organisations in the community, although in many cases the individuals have been able to achieve what had been deemed as impossible (getting tertiary education, raising families, starting an enterprise, for example) I wish to present success stories.
In this way, the prejudices surrounding disability in Kazakhstan can be called into question, and those parents with children who are disabled can be inspired to support their children in spite of institutional dismissal of their cases.
I presented my concept to the management of ARDI, and they offered their full support and assistance, on the understanding that the films will ultimately be incorporated onto their own website and form part of their archival materials. All of the subjects selected have a solid and ongoing relationship with the centre.
The final product will consist of a series of (somewhere between 3 and 6) multi-media presentations (photofilms) that combine my own photography, rephotographed family albums, official documentary evidence (birth certificates, statistics, etc), recorded testimony and interviews with the parents and children. I am not sure yet on the format (flash player may well be the way to go, since it means the work cannot so easily be copied or taken out of context) and need to experiment with different methods of presentation.
As examples of image-text combinations, as well as the juxtaposing of photography with personal narratives to analyse how global issues impact lives on an individual level, I have so far been looking at the work of Fred Lonidier (his work on industrial accidents), Phel Steinmetz (his work on border control issues), and Susan Meiselas (her work on the Kurds), and will begin to collect documentary evidence after the summer. I have been reading Fred Ritchin (Bending the Frame), Allan Sekula (Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973-1983), Martha Rosler (Decoys and Disruptions), Sontag (Regarding the Pain of Others), Judith Butler (Precarious Life), Solomon-Godeau (Photography At the Dock) amongst others. I am also considering getting a book on disability theory (the Disability Studies Reader) by Lennard Davis to get an insight into the issues surrounding disability as well as how disabled people are represented in mainstream media.
My main tools of research, however, will be the internet and the subjects themselves – after all, it is their personal stories and reflections that I am exploring. The work has a distinctly collaborative nature, and I view my role as that of facilitator, providing a platform for these people to tell their stories. The work then is about their lives and not about my skills as a photographer. Since the essence of the project is rooted in normalcy, the feel of the images should reflect that and not in any way be stylised or feel contrived.