At the end of 2016 Benedict Phillips was invited to attend and speak at the DisArt symposium (April 6-8 2017) taking place in Grand Rapids, Michigan. DAO invited him document his experience; to communicate it through photography as a series of portraits of delegates and organisers and to contextualise his photographic work with a short essay.
Since returning from the US I have been reflecting on some of the issues that have come to mind when thinking about representing an individual as ‘disabled’ in a context where they are supported by an inclusive community and reflecting on a divided society.
A central concern of our visual culture is looking, seeing, observing but it’s surprising how few people seem to understand this is not just an act but a discipline within itself. Like many disciplines it overlaps and interacts with many others, I spent many hours of every week from the age of 12 until I was in my 20s just staring. Often I would have a pencil or a camera in my hand and would collect, document, represent, engage with, that which I studied.
Our culture and this society is obsessed with looking at and representing a minority of humans in a tiny phase in their life. Essentially able-bodied white European 15 to 25-year-olds. This is a point a time in many people’s lives when they stop being ‘looked after’… A time of discovery and freedom and before they take on the role of ‘looking after’ others. We are children, then we are not, then we have communities, dependents, children and responsibilities!
So not everyone is a white European teenager and even white European teenagers are not that for a very long time! But society persist with this idea that this fleeting moment is all. People talk about averages but of course the average person is Chinese. These terms alluding to the ‘average’ are always misleading to me, to look at and represent what is in front of me as clearly and without distraction is often at the heart of my approach in making a portrait. Whether this be documentary or studio, people are fascinating. I have tried in my series of portraits of presenters at the DisArt symposium in Grand Rapids Michigan to represent the physicality, the stance of individuals. showing the way they take up space and communicate with their hands eyes or voice. For me the world and the people in it are extraordinary and it is an important part of my work to reflect back what I see – not just to illustrate a fantasy or myth.
The Dis-Arts symposium is a social space, it believes in a Social Model of Disability. That seems to create a stronger connection between individuals than any commonality in physical or invisible disability. This is not a place that is interested in interpreting every individual by their silhouette, this is not a place where everyone is expected to fit through the same space and exit out the other side identical. We are here because we do not pass, because we do not fit in to some social norm and we reject social myth of difference, which divides people. Of course the agenda of a gathering like this will attract those with something in common, after all that is part of its function.
We are reflecting on something which is considered to be by the majority about an individuals physicality. But here is this space. Our ideas, driven by political and intellectual debate, creates the common ground. A community of ideas that generates a requirement and demand for an intelligent empathy as a two-way street, as a benefit to all in society.
If you’re interested to know more about the DisArt symposium, the organisation or just curious to find out what the presenters had to say, you can check out the symposium film archive of presentations and talks, which will be available on the DisArt website soon! If you are interested in receiving notice when the presentations are available, please go to the DisArt website and ‘Click to Register’ and DisArt will contact you once the films are available.