Advocacy and Adaptation: Promoting Inclusivity in Photography

Advocacy and Adaptation: Promoting Inclusivity in Photography with Elizabeth Rajchart

In the summer of 2016, I had my portrait taken by a photographer at a flea market. Summers are always hard for me; my medical conditions and disabilities cause me to be very heat sensitive. My face swells massively, my temperature rises above 103 degrees, and sometimes, I even pass out. This photographer offered something intriguing, which she called “soul portraits”—unedited portraits taken after answering various prompts about yourself, your goals, and your dreams. The photographer didn’t even watch as she took the photograph. When I received my soul portrait a week later, I was in awe. I saw the bright red face, swollen cheeks, and lopsided eyes … but I saw a fighter. I saw exactly who I was, or at least who I wanted to be.

Our society looks at disability so negatively; it’s something to be hidden away, to fear or pity. At the other end of the spectrum, we are characterized as “inspirational” to able-bodied people, “brave” for simply living our lives, or caricatures that make everyone else feel better about themselves. More often than not, we fight to be portrayed just as we are, or how we want to be seen. We deserve the right to decide how we’re represented.

I’ve identified as disabled in one way or another since I was a child. It’s always been a part of me, and it’s something I’m not ashamed of. Growing up, I would lead lessons on disability rights, and I was always the student chosen to assist new classmates with disabilities. Last year, my disability went from invisible to visible when I started using a wheelchair. While this mobility aid helped my life tremendously—I could now last longer, go farther, and be more independent in all aspects of life—it also caused some new issues for me and my career. I had to take a break, reassess my abilities, and redetermine my new career goals.

The first and biggest change was my approach to performance and concert photography. Everything I’d learned in two years of experience with shooting all types of performances became unhelpful with a wheelchair. In the club scene, I had been known just as much for my shooting style—climbing under tables, standing on chairs, even hanging from bars in the various clubs I shot in—as for my actual photography. In the pit at concerts, I moved around a lot as well, working around other photographers but still getting as close to the action as possible to make sure I got my shot. The wheelchair made me bigger and bulkier, and ironically took away so much of my mobility. I not only was fixed at the same angle all night, but I found that some locations weren’t even accessible to me. At venues that couldn’t fit me, I was relegated to the wings—watching other photographers interact with the performer while I was shooting from half a stage away. In the studio, where I once was able to move around and play with angles, I was now either stuck in my wheelchair or placed on a stool.

But these limitations taught me to focus more on my technical and composition skills. Education on studio lighting became invaluable, as I couldn’t always maneuver myself to the best natural lighting. Composition skills became crucial: at concerts, I had to see what was possible for me to capture from where I was, rather than having the entire stage to work with.

But an even bigger change was learning how to advocate for myself in these settings. Advocacy is incredibly important to me, and it’s a skill I think everyone should learn to develop from a young age. After starting to use the wheelchair, I had to learn how to advocate for myself to the bands and venues I worked with. I was in tears working at a major venue I had become familiar with the year before, frustrated at what I now had to work with. The pit, the aisles, the sound booth—none of them gave me a window to be able to see above the heads of the other photographers or the crowd. Finally, after squeezing myself through a very tight barricade, I decided to ask the videographer, positioned on a raised platform, for help.

“Do you mind if I come up there with you?” I yelled, gesturing at the box he stood on. And to my surprise, he welcomed me up. My PA helped me stand, and while I clung to the gate, he hoisted my wheelchair up to the platform before lifting me up. I sat down and was finally able to breathe. I could finally see the band clearly. For the first time that night, I was actually able to do my job.

The next day, I called the head of photography at the venue, explained my struggles the night before, and discussed what accommodations might be helpful in the future for me. I was beyond terrified to bring this to his attention. What if I was asking for too much? What if these requests crossed a line? What if I got blacklisted from the venue?

But as I explained my needs, the exact opposite happened. He started brainstorming with me, suggesting ideas that would make my job easier. He helped me establish a new plan for future concerts, to make sure I was accommodated for and on an even playing field with the rest of the photographers. He gave me ways that I could simply do my job.

I have the privilege of having a loud and (usually) listened-to voice. Not everyone in my community has been given such a gift. With that gift comes responsibility, not only to advocate for myself, but also for others. I want to use my voice to make sure others have the opportunity to experience art the same way I have. It is my fundamental belief that art is a human right and can truly save lives. As someone chronically ill and homebound, art through photography gave me a reason to get up every day. Later, art got me out of the house and gave me independence for the first time. Art has given me an outlet for emotions that seemed too overwhelming to handle, and it has made me feel less alone by connecting me with others. Art changes lives, yet there are so many limitations, including physical accessibility, lack of closed captioning or interpreters, even overcrowding, all of which leave it only accessible to the abled population. Art is how cultures communicate, how emotions and experiences are expressed, and how healing happens. To leave this available only to part of our population is not only wrong, it is a true attack on the rights of many people.

Photography, particularly boudoir photography, is a field that has especially been kept from the disabled population for multiple reasons. For one, society is subconsciously taught that disabled people don’t have sex and don’t want to be seen as sexy. Also, many photographers simply don’t have the time, energy, or drive to learn how to work with this population—certainly not enough to specialize in it. I decided to start focusing my photography on the disability community as a way to take back our power in how we choose to present ourselves and create a more inclusionary space in the field of photography. Through photography, my models can present their strength, sexiness, and personality in a way that feels right for them—not as dictated by an ableist society. My goal is to reach all demographics within the disability community and foster a new era of art accessibility. Photography has historically either ignored the disabled or used us as subjects to pity or place on a pedestal of “inspiration porn.” I want to take our voice and power back, while creating an inclusive space in an otherwise ableist and exclusionary field. I want to give other disabled people the feeling that photographer so many years ago gave me.

Throughout my career and health changes, I’ve had to redefine success for myself again and again. For so long, I was living in the mindset that success had a very narrow definition, determined by people who did not have my goals, were not on my path, and had no business defining my own success. So many people fall into this trap and let others convince them they are unsuccessful, simply because their own journey isn’t understood by others. So many people compare their lives to those on completely different paths and forget to celebrate all of their victories, both big and small. As both a disabled person and an artist, I have learned that only I can decide what true success is to me. Climbing corporate ladders doesn’t interest me, but creating beauty and making a difference does. Making unique art and helping change lives are my goals for success. On harder days, simply getting out of bed is my success, and I try to celebrate it just as much as huge career accomplishments. I remember that fighter, back in 2016, who could hardly leave the house. I remember that no matter how much farther I have to go, I’ve come such a long way.

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Advocacy and Adaptation: Promoting Inclusivity in Photography

with Elizabeth Rajchart time to read: 8 min
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