A story uses words to convey a message. Photographs tell stories too, but through visual elements & conventions that help teach us what is appropriate and worthy of being stared at. Such visual narratives often reflect what society already believes and values, and up until recently, Western photos typically characterized people with disability in medical, sentimental/charity, or sensational ways.
However, photos can also accomplish ethical work. They can influence how we think about people who are different from us. Formal photos like portraits can be particularly transformative since they disrupt public expectations. The subject of a portrait is recognized as worthy of being photographed. The format implies that you are worthy of contemplation and commemoration. So the very acts of staging and taking the photos symbolize their membership in a valued group – those who ought to be gazed at.
Portraits further confer the dignity of full personhood on their subjects in two ways. First, through their emphasis on the particular traits of a single person, not the broad stereotypes of the group, it is akin to an actual encounter with the person. Second, portraits ask viewers to recognize the person ‘as s/he is’… as both worthy of gazing and disabled. It is just this kind of message that MaryAnn and Warren delivered to our lecture class for “Rethinking Disability” – that she is her own person in every sense and more than worthy of being gazed at.
Pam Cushing is a long-time friend and supporter of the work of L’Arche. She has been teaching at King’s College, University of Western Ontario since 2005 and in 2013 helped found the “Disability Studies” program – one of the few such programs in Canada. Warren Pot and Mary Ann Larcina were guest lecturers in one of Professor Cushing’s class “Re-Imagining Disability”