False starts

Irina Gruzintseva

Irina was born with severe scoliosis and has physical developmental disability. At the moment I met with her and her parents, I was coming from the angle of people overcoming their diagnoses. At that time, Irina’s father Igor told me that they had been correctly informed about Irina’s condition and what to expect. He also understood that a project such as mine could change direction and focus, and expressed willingness to remain in contact in the event that Irina’s case could be of use in the future. Since my focus has now changed from ‘overcoming diagnoses’ to ‘living normally with disability’ they may yet receive a call from me.

Medet Zhanupeisov

They call him Matisse. Medet has a wonderfully warm personality and is extremely kind and gentle. He loves painting and never seems to tire of it. Although there is no conclusive evidence, it seems that force was applied to Medet’s mother’s abdomen as she was giving birth, which probably resulted in his CP.

I met Medet and his mother at their home and we discussed the project, but it became apparent that he is not able to be self sufficient, and this is an issue for his mother. Medet told me that he would like to go to work, but the severity of his disability means that it is difficult for him to make himself understood verbally, and although he can cope with small errands such as shopping, more often than not he needs to be given a list of items that he simply hands over. Much as I want to include him in the project, I don’t think that his case can be used to challenge stereotypes in the way I would like. I may visit him and take a series of photos that I can give him and his mother, since I don’t want to drop them cold. I don’t know. This is difficult for me, since he is so keen to be involved.

Vasily Gasanov

Vasya lives with his mum in a district of the city that is close to the railway station. He is a swimming champion, and has travelled to Ireland to participate in the Special Olympic Games. I have met him on several occasions, and have been struck by his contagious sense of humour. His mother Olga told me that he has got into trouble since he appears normal, but once approached and confronted, for example by the police, he is unable to respond adequately to situations. He agreed to take part in the project, and we discussed a number of things that could be included, such as his swimming practice, going to football matches, working around the home, as well as his relationship with Bota, a deaf-mute. Apart from logistic challenges (Vasya lives quite a long way from my home) the biggest obstacle I can foresee is communication. Since Vasya is oligophrenic, he can communicate with some clarity about concrete things, but with more abstract concepts such as time, he becomes confused. As such, all communication and arrangements will have to be done through his mother, and I’m not sure that she completely understands the project. At the moment I am playing it by ear. I will try to start with a swimming session or football match, and if it works out then we’ll push on. Otherwise I may not pursue this subject. (Nixon’s words ‘Life’s too short’ come to mind, but I’m thinking more about my project timeline than life expectancy!)

Askar & Malika Musayev

When I first met Askar and Malika, they were inseparable. Within a few months of this picture being taken, they got married. Askar is oligophrenic and Malika has dysplasia of the spine and is cognitively impaired. They both attend ARDI from Monday to Friday, and are actively involved in all extracurricular events. They spend their time between Askar’s parents and Malika’s grandmother (her mother has not been actively involved in her life for several years, and was vehemently against their union). I have met all the guardians, and we have agreed about participation, but my concern at the moment is with the content and the overall message.

First visit

On the first visit, Askar and Malika wanted to show me how they passed the time, since neither of them actually works. They were adamant that, although they still attend the centre, they did not want to be photographed there. I’m not sure why this is, but can only assume it is out of some sense of pride in their autonomy.

On the other hand, by showing these disabled people engaged in embroidery the whole time, am I not simply creating another stereotype? Although it may be therapeutic, and of course they can sell the finished items, this is not really an occupation, more of a hobby. I asked them what else they wanted to show me, and they promised to think about it. I get the feeling that they are not as self-sufficient as I was led to believe. Initially I was accepted extremely cordially by Askar’s parents, but had the feeling that something was amiss. Apparently Malika ran away from her overbearing mother who does not agree with the marriage.

Second visit

I invited them to do something domestic, just for the camera, and they said they’d cook something up for me. We decided to go shopping and then cook something. The first few stores we visited would not allow me to shoot, even though we went through the correct channels asking the administrative staff and the managers. I suggested we try smaller shops, and the salespeople were more forthcoming.

After the shopping excursion we returned home, and Askar began peeling the potatoes.

When the cooking began, Malika took over.

When we sat down to eat, although Askar’s mother asked not to be included in the frame, her presence is conveyed by the table layout and the attitudes of Askar and Malika. There was a lot going on that I could not fathom.

Third visit

During the third visit, where we began discussing future plans and ambitions, all became apparent to me and a spanner was thrown into the works. Askar became self-conscious in front of the camera and refused to speak. Malika described in great detail how she had run away from her mother, but as soon as I mentioned the current living arrangements she clammed up. As I understood from our first interviews, the couple want to have children, but it seems as though the people supporting them are not in full agreement with that. Indeed, I was taken aside and asked my opinion on the matter. I did not see any reason for letting the couple get married if they were not allowed to follow through and have children. The very point of this project is to try and question or challenge such stereotypes, and without the full support of the parents, holding up Askar and Malika as examples of disabled people that can actually pull through against the odds and lead autonomous lives of their own would be a pointless and fraudulent exercise. I don’t know what the rationale was behind consenting to let them get married if they are to be denied the possibility of having children. It is not my place to judge whether or not they are capable of bringing up a family, and was being forced into a position that I could not hold. It is not my aim to judge or to justify, but to report on an issue that I feel needs airing. If the parents themselves cannot accept accountability, or allow their children to accept responsibility, it undermines the very point I am trying to make.

Being asked whether or not I think it is a good idea for ‘such a couple’ to have children was the last straw. Although I have spoken about this with other disabled parents and disabled persons, who have tried to assure me that the decision at the end of the day lies with the couple, I fear in fact it does not, and don’t want to go down that path. I have given them all their photos on a disc and thanked them for participating. We still see each other at the centre and they have featured in the photographs of some of the other participants, notably Adilzhan.

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Project participants

All of the potential participants in the project I have met before and made contact with on numerous occasions. This makes the process much easier, since they already know me and I have established a rapport with them. This is probably the most important and time-consuming part of any humanist project, and one that deserves more attention. I have read or heard photographers talk about using their personality, and I really feel that a camera without a personality behind it is not able to get those intimate and captivating shots that so engage viewers. To hell with HCB and the decisive moment; if you’re working with people, you need to have a decent personality to begin with. I always start with the people, just talking to them. I take along a notebook and pencil to the preliminary meeting, but never a camera. I want them to identify with me first as a person, and later as a maker of pictures, in much the same way as I relate to them as people first, and then whatever later – be it artist, musician, actor or person with disability. Without the personal connection there is not much point to the exercise in my opinion. I made a long list and began to meet people from the disability centre ARDI, where we had made initial contact.

Reflections on and changes to project brief

The more I look at disability and the issues and discourse brought into focus by disabled artists themselves, the more the project is developing into a need to challenge stereotypes and present my subjects as people who are trying to lead normal existences despite their impairments, and despite societal barriers, rather than what I had first envisaged as a kind of collection of people who are achieving things beyond what the initial diagnosis had predicted for them. This may seem like a slight adjustment, but it is a huge political shift for me.

Background & rationale

During the course I have recently finished (YOP), 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. The films work to raise awareness about disappearing traditions, provide an insight into how these artisans work, as well as fixing intangible cultural heritage in the spirit of the UNESCO programme. By combining image and spoken word, I have enabled the protagonists to have their own voice, as such empowering them and avoiding ‘exotic’ readings of the individuals and their work.

Since then I have become involved with a local centre for disabled persons (ARDI). After shooting a series of documentary style images for the centre, I understood the limitations of standalone images to convey the idea that I wanted to get across – 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.

My idea now is to present 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.

The final product will combine photographs, rephotographed family albums, official documentary evidence, recorded testimony and interviews with 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 be copied or taken out of context so easily), but I have 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, Allan Sekula (Against the Grain), Martha Rosler (Decoys and Disruptions), Sontag (Regarding the Pain of Others), Judith Butler (Precarious Life), Solomon-Godeau (At the Dock) amongst others. I am considering getting a book on disability (the Disability Studies Reader) (http://www.amazon.com/Disability-Studies-Reader-Lennard-Davis/dp/0415630517).