A few years ago I was at an assessment meeting for a major qualifications awarding body. The person chairing this meeting pointed out that when designing courses I should consider the ability of the participant and make sure that I don’t allow someone to participate if they are unable to access the subject. She said “You can’t expect a fish to climb a tree so you can’t give a qualification for Tree Climbing to a fish”
My response was “What if I invent a way to access the fish’s neurons which allows the fish to direct a monkey to climb the tree on their behalf? The fish knows how to climb the tree yet is physically unable through no fault of their own. The fish instead is directing a proxy to climb the tree on their behalf. Ergo, the fish should be awarded the qualification in Tree Climbing. Or as an alternative, if the monkey is unavailable, I could invent bionic suit for the fish to wear so that they are able to climb the tree themselves.”
I was not being awkward and I could see from her blank expression that she did not understand. I could see that her analogy was one from a common sense point of view, but to me it was akin to discrimination. The decision about if a person should be assessed at all should not be about what you encounter at face value. Surely the assessor has a responsibility to make sure that the test is accessible and should change the parameters of the assessment to be suited to the individual? Nobody should be held back from achieving just because they seem unable to operate within the same parameters as somebody else. As assessors we are failing if we do not find a way for the fish to express himself and communicate to us his knowledge about tree climbing.
The use of a proxy, either mechanical or personal, is universal and not always determined by disability but by necessity. I pointed out that athletes are able to enter and win a 100m sprint and we do not deny them this right to participate by telling them they can’t have a wheelchair if they need it. Meanwhile, in the Arts, film directors tell people what to do all the time whilst not necessarily handling the camera themselves. Is she saying that Steven Spielberg is unable to be awarded merit for the films he makes simply because he hasn’t been the one operating the camera?
A photographer could have a physical impairment and yet can still direct others to hold the camera and create the picture they want to make. The mental processes which have happened are those of the photographer rather than their proxy. This photographer is able to be assessed on photography even if physically they are incapable of handling a camera. Some arts photographers make themselves the subject and as an exploration of self-expression and/or performance direct others to make the photograph on their behalf. The ownership of photograph is theirs since the direction, rather than the execution, has come from them.
Meanwhile a beginner photographer with learning difficulties can take photographs of the same quality and expression as a professional graduate. Surely we cannot deny them the right to be exhibited in galleries simply because they don’t have the means to philosophize about their work at a rigorous academic level. The expression and skills are there and we should be applauding the photographer in their abilities rather than being elitist.*
So this brings me to today where I’ve been putting together a proposal for a series of photography workshops for the blind and visually impaired. There is a huge movement out there for visually impaired photographers and a massive range of ways that they can access the medium. My photography workshops have always been designed with self-expression and empowerment in mind. I also encourage participants to discard what they feel Photography should be about in exchange for creating compositions more in keeping with their emotions. I am a believer in full disability equality with my activities designed to be accessible to all.
I’ve always felt that photography is about self-expression and self-determination with the by-product of the experience being the picture itself. The photograph communicates to others the experiences, emotions, and feelings of the photographer. Of course, there is a whole world of communication which takes place about the photograph after it has been taken. Why shouldn’t this be accessible to people with a visual impairment? Sometimes the photograph is about that feeling that something is right which comes from the photographer themselves and this is regardless of the standard visual rules of composition or current academic leanings.
Oh and don’t even start me on the assumption that ‘blind’ means a total lack of vision when actually there is a massive spectrum of sensory ability** which is very individual to that blind person. Shape and shadows are not always undetectable. Form and light can be there in varying capacities. The moment you start generalizing about what a photographer should be then you are in danger of denying that person their right to expression and their right to access the medium. Then you’re back to malformed analogies on fish and trees and I’m just going to have to leave you right there.
Oh, and that meeting? Well, I’m not sure whether it was my overwhelming argument or whether the whole room was just bored with me but yes, eventually it was agreed that my allegorical fish should be allowed to be assessed in Tree Climbing.
*I’m saving my wrath about the financial inequalities in the world and how the poor and talented are left by the wayside. Don’t even start me on that level of elitism because I really will get angry there.
**Yes, I said “ability”. Not inability or disability. Everyone has an ability and we should celebrate the diversity in being differently abled to each other.