Lessons learned & further practice

On being flexible: example of changes to my initial assignment

During the initial meeting with Dinara, her mother (Bibigul) explained that Dinara’s CP was caused by their differing blood types. When Dinara was born she was suffering from jaundice, and the lack of action taken by the medical professionals, as well as Bibigul’s lack of awareness, resulted in CP. Possibly, had Bibigul had access to more information, Dinara might not have developed CP. Following from the work of Jo Spence (‘Cancer Shock‘ (1982) and ‘The Picture of Health?‘ (1982-86)) that deals with her sense of disempowerment at the hands of NHS medical professionals, I decided my work on Dinara should be concerned with raising awareness/empowering mothers by supplying them with knowledge that they may then confront their doctors with (Spence et al 2012, Sontag 1989), transforming a negative experience into something ‘useful’ (Spence 1995, p 196).

If the production of this short film can at least help some mothers be informed that jaundice in a newborn is something that needs immediate medical treatment, then it will have achieved a major goal.

While conducting the interview with Bibigul, it became apparent that my original idea (of showing disabled children that had somehow proved their initial diagnoses ‘wrong’) was not going to be practicable for a number of reasons. The first reason was that much of the evidence was anecdotal (one doctor said this, another that) and amounted to unsubstantiated accusations of malpractice, and therefore a weak documentary (I had initially wanted to try something in the vein of Lonidier’s occupational accident series) possibly opening myself up to libel. Due to the absence of any hard documentary evidence, as well as the interviewees themselves becoming vaguer once recording equipment was visibly present, it seems that such a project is not going to happen. After initial disappointment I pressed on, deciding to shift the emphasis of the project in connection with the disability research I have been conducting.

Although I had initially wanted to show the struggles of disabled people in the social environment (a day in the life, showing how the everyday activities that we take for granted are actually a struggle for disabled persons) I have decided that this is nothing original. What has been less covered, or at least visibly so, is the filming of a semblance of ‘normal’ life – without attempting to make it stylised or in any way evoking pity. I want to show hard facts in the photographs; the voiceover will do the explanation. This is not about charity (evoking sympathy), but stories about people (engendering empathy), and I have the ability to build a trusting relationship so that people open up and are themselves in front of my camera. This being my strength, I need to work with that: to show how the subjects respond to me personally, and use that to tell their stories.

Conclusion & further practice

This project was conducted for a client with a specific end product in mind. Although the focus shifted slightly during production, this did not mean that it went beyond the scope of the original objective of producing photofilms centred on disabled people, which could be embedded in the client’s website or shown on other platforms for raising awareness and challenging stereotypes. I used the opportunity to experiment with incorporating moving and still images as well as personal items to add a vernacular dimension.
I also attempted to include traces of myself in the images or sound files, but these did not make it to the final cut due to considerations of time and content.

I feel I have become more proficient at producing photofilms, and would like to experiment more with combining moving image and other features such as stop-motion and varying the speed of filming to achieve different effects (as an experiment I shot a sequence with Amanat and his children getting ready to pose for a portrait, deciding how and where they should stand, which we then sped up).

Being flexible and open to accept the challenges presented when things didn’t go according to plan meant that I was able to cope with difficulties that arose due to personal circumstances and motivation among my participants. One of the most important new elements for me has been the use of collaborative techniques to introduce ownership and agency into the portrayal of subjects. I have always found rapport to be an essential element when doing social documentary work, but I still learned a lot from my research, especially Nicholas Nixon‘s observations (cited in Crimp, 1992) about the challenges he faced photographing people with AIDS (initial enthusiasm followed by ‘resistance’). Many hours were spent doing ‘remedial work’ (Henderson 1988), coaxing my participants into seeing the project through to completion, trying to help them deal with depression and other issues. I have thus formed meaningful relationships with these individuals and their families, as well as the staff at the rehabilitation centre, which will last well beyond the framework of this project.

Finally, I have learned a lot about a whole area of theoretical debate which was new to me, as well as appreciating there can be underlying ambiguities in apparently moralistic ‘means to an end’ media images. I have also begun to consider myself within the framework of my own notions of mortality/normality. Working with people is always a learning process.

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