On UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities we want to talk about the responsibility photographers have to ensure their work doesn’t perpetuate inequality.
“That’s his proper happy face – we don’t see that very often.” These were the words of Martin’s sister when she saw the photos that Mile 91 captured of her brother for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) earlier this year.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission is Great Britain’s national equality body. Their job is to help make Britain fairer and they do this by safeguarding and enforcing the laws that protect people’s rights to fairness, dignity and respect.
We’ve been working with EHRC since February this year when they were seeking photographers to help them bring their reports and digital communications to life. They were looking for someone with strong connections into the communities whose rights they exist to protect. Our contacts across the charity sector and these communities, coupled with our strong belief in the work EHRC does, meant we knew this was a job we had to go for.
Over the year we have photographed refugee communities, transgender students, inside secure mental health facilities, at community-based rehabilitation services, the Inns of Court and with young people at political events at Westminster. But today we want to talk about the work we have done with many disabled people and disabled people’s organisations across the UK.
Today is the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities (yes we think that is quite a clunky name too!) and this year’s theme is Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality. In the spring EHRC published a report into disabled people’s living conditions and in autumn they launched their three-yearly state of the nation report, Is Britain Fairer?
They reported that disabled people are not enjoying the progress experienced by other groups. Their right to an inclusive education is not being fulfilled, disabled people earn less per hour on average than non-disabled people and are more likely to be in low-pay occupations, and they are more likely to be living in poverty. They also face poorer health and lack of access to suitable housing. Our job was to capture images for these reports.
An equality issue we believe passionately in at Mile 91 is equality of portrayal. Too often people who live with difference or disadvantage are shown to be victims and images are often passive. We believe you can show a person’s circumstances without victimising them but too often disabled people are stereotyped as helpless or incapable or sad. Fortunately, aspirational and postive imagery that showed best practice in access and opportunity was our brief from EHRC. So, we captured students at university, the chair of a charity driving his car and leading meetings, a young woman out and about at the cinema and grabbing a pizza, and Martin, cooking dinner for his housemates.
Seeing the images we have taken for EHRC peppered across their website, on the cover of reports and popping up on our Twitter timeline has been hugely rewarding but it’s comments like the one above from Martin’s sister that make our day. And this tweet from Difference North had us smiling all day: “At last a positive portrayal of a disabled person doing an everyday thing, in an everyday way, looking happy, using proper kit.”
It’s not hard to positively portray difference. Involve the people you are photographing. Don’t turn up to a shoot with your tick list of what you need to get and stage a few shots. You’re photographing someone’s life so ask them what they want to show. The reason Martin looked so happy was because he was directing the shoot! Yes, photograph some of the challenges (our job after all is often to raise awareness of what needs to change) but capture the moments of normality too – those snapshots of a life that show sameness not difference. Those of us who tell the stories of disabled people have a responsibility to do this. Negative imagery and storytelling contributes to perceptions of what a disabled person is capable of and that in turn contributes to continued inequality and a lack of opportunity.
Thank you to all the charities, institutions and individuals who supported us with these shoots this year. If you would like to talk to us about how we create images that tackle stereotypes and prejudice get in touch. Find out more about the Equality and Human Rights Commission here.