Saturday, 17 October 2015


In the garden of a hospital in Ukraine I met a boy who had been attacked by a dog, the physical scarring on his face equalled only by a silent communication of a deeper emotional damage. The unsympathetic gaze of the camera had accidentally exposed the most tender and vulnerable elements of his world in that moment.

I am attracted to any altered state that explores the boundaries of what might be considered normal and in the above example, the boy's emotional damage inspired an investigation of other forms, including learning difficulty and mental illness, as an experiment into how these conditions might represent themselves to a camera under similar conditions.

Before I met the charity that supports the parents of the autistic children that led to the final exhibition ‘Boys in a City Park’, I investigated some other groups caring for young people with varying degrees of mental health, as well as those with Cerebral Palsy. In photographing these young people I was aware of a more brutal and unrepresentative facsimile of their lives when they were exposed to the same objectification and most importantly, I noticed how these representations did not fit into the normative parameters through which we have become accustomed to reading the emotions in photographs.

With Down syndrome the camera saw the condition as a mask to the emotions and as Susan Sontag said most cruelly of Diane Arbus’s work, “When you photograph a dwarf, you don’t see majesty, you just see a dwarf.” I see this now as less shocking in the context of my contemporary experience. I interpret it as more of a commentary of societal parameters, an observation of our inability to ‘see’ those, who are not communicating in a way we can so easily interpret.

Photographing subjects with cerebral palsy or motor-neuron disease presents a unique issue, as the condition is literally a mask to the trapped human being inside a body that won’t behave itself. In recording the subject response with a camera, I cannot trust the physical signs that would reflect emotions in an able bodied person. Not only this but further, during an assignment at a college for disabled young people, I found myself deeply conflicted as I was only comfortable when recording the muscle movements in the face of a subject, Lewis, that would represent him to a normative audience in a palatable way. Photographing Professor Stephen Hawking more recently offered up a similar dilemma; I found myself seeking some semblance of emotional contact that would indicate that within this extraordinary and almost entirely useless frame was a person that we could relate to as normal let alone a genius.

To move perhaps towards a more equitable representation, I feel now that the way to represent subjects, ironically, can only be through the very objectification that feels disrespectful; to not compensate for the expectations of a pitying and patronizing (if well meaning) majority. To do this many compositional rules of aesthetics are not only rendered obsolete but are re-framed as prejudicial and limiting.

Protecting one's dignity or of those less able to fight independently for their own, is a common expectation rooted in a fear of being primarily defined by the surface but it denies the camera an opportunity to capture what is the reality of our lives. Accepting these stereotypical representations based on historical rules is self-limiting, it is our prejudice projected harmfully onto the subject and returned to us as audience. (It is a moral dilemma we are less concerned about in the representation of other, non Western, cultures).

As I applied a version of objectivity to the subjects of one day centre for young adults with learning difficulties in Ukraine, I remember feeling an overwhelming confluence with Diane Arbus, I felt possessed by her spirit, like I was walking in her shoes, I was her and I didn’t like it. It felt like a cold and brutal world, devoid of empathy, driven by the pursuit of an image and a loneliness satiated only by a need to belong to a tribe of 'aristocratic' freaks. 4 years later, as I observe through my camera, a child who cannot breath without needing the mucus to be constantly sucked from her airways by her mother, I realise that I am seeking to record her life as part of the whole, not as a celebration of a mutated Arbus aristocrat on the periphery of the ordinary.

This is a line that must be faced and crossed not just because it is there (deliberately at odds with all compassionate cultural instinct) but in the capture the images are a record reported back to the world of a less explored but equally valid universe. Resulting images are in their nature a debate of the parameters through which we judge each other and are an aggressive challenge to the stereotypical conventions through which society is viewed. The brutality is only relative to the blandness and cowardice of conventional representation.

Lewis, National Star College, England © Richard Ansett

Man with learning difficulties exercising for the camera, Ukraine © Richard Ansett

Untitled, Diane Arbus

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