During research for my last major project, I came across a reference to this essay and then later located it in the Disability Studies Reader. In it, David Hevey looks at how, on the whole, disability imagery is oppressive to its subjects, regardless of the photographer’s intentions. Since the author is both a photographer and disabled himself, this essay has some valid insights into how disabled persons are portrayed in the media.
Hevey makes the profound statement that disabled people are not shown in commercial advertising, since “…disabled people are not thought to constitute a body of consumers and therefore do not generally warrant inclusion” (p 367). He also talks about the colonization of disabled people’s bodies and identities:
Passive and still and “done to,” the images bear a bizarre resemblance to colonial pictures where “the blacks” stand frozen and curious, while “whitey” lounges confident and sure. Whitey knows the purpose of this image, the black people appear not to (or at least, perhaps as employees, have no right to record visual dissent). The “positive” side of their ultra-minority inclusion, then, is that disabled people are there to demonstrate the successes of their administrators. (p 367)
Hevey seems to point out a fact that I had been aware of, and am approaching with some trepidation (which is why I have decided to read some literature on the subject before embarking on the production stage of my project – I’d like to be informed about current trends and positions on the subject rather than make mistakes that I may later regret.
Hevey uses the term ‘socially dead’ to refer to common attitudes towards disabled people, and cites this as the reason why they are largely absent from photographic genre and discussion. He then looks at 4 publications he says he picked ‘at random’ (though I doubt this very much!). The first book he selected is Steichen’s Family of Man. I have already looked at this publication in depth, its cold war era optimism in the shadow of nuclear threat and aftermath of the holocaust; obviously Steichen wanted to exhibit a perfect world, and as such, death disease and poverty were given scant representation, as was disability. Near the end of the tome, Hevey manages to locate an image of an amputee playing football – a reminder that possibly all is not well in the world after all.
Nevertheless, the boy is putting a brave face on it’, doing his best to overcome the loss of his leg. As Hevey points out: “The image is “positive” in that he is “positively” adjusting to his loss. Because he is “positively” adjusting to his loss, the image is allowed into the exhibition and the catalogue” albeit “tucked away… as a hidden blemish on the body of humanity,” (p 368). As such, the image has been used against the boy, since disability is seen as being an issue to be overcome by the individual and not the world at large, which Steichen envisaged as being of necessity built upon the idea that harmony rests in the “full operation of an idealised working body” leaving no place for disabled people in its post-war reconstruction.
It is important to note that Hevey never refers to disabled people as ‘victims’ or speaks of their ‘suffering’. These are words that I feel at times tempted to use (through habit), but need to consciously avoid. I managed to find the image I believe Hevey is referring to by looking up the list of images included in Steichen’s original exhibition and narrowing the search down to countries more likely to have a young amputee in the 1950s. I turned up this image by Charles Trieschmann taken in Morocco, which seems to fit the description Hevey gives: