A few weeks ago I went to see the an Arena Group photography exhibition at the Menier Gallery at “The Chocolate Factory” in Southwark. I was expecting some good prints, maybe excellent prints – both of which I found in no short supply, but I was taken aback by a set of work by Chrissie Westgate. A panel of some 23 large prints in black and white that offered a straightforward, but vivid narrative of the life of its subject, Sophie Weaver.
It wouldn’t be difficult to say what drew me to the images first, the obvious beauty of the image and the scale they were presented in – two rows of images, with caption cards, also in black and white. Again, beauty as a means of attraction that invites engagement, and it is the engagement that provides a stage to deliver a narrative. The photographer, and especially the documentary photographer, almost by description, seeks out subjects to document. A long tradition now, over a century old, of artists seeking to provide a voice to a people or to a situation. And whilst this work didn’t start out as a documentary the resulting set of images from which the Menier set stem has ended up as documentary.
The project started out with Sophie Weaver wanting to have a portfolio of images to provide to the Spotlight agency for actors proved a starting point , requiring colour and black and white images – to a set agency standard – it was Sophie who then decided that the brief she had provided to Chrissie might perhaps be expanded to include more personal shots and then between them it expanded further to be a fuller documentary of Sophie.
This statement accompanied the panel of work:
I wanted to find some more about this work and motives behind it and contacted them both to see if they would work with me. It was Sophie who approached Chrissie firstly to do the portfolio for the acting agency, then to widen the brief , for more glamorous, risqué shots and then collaboratively to document ‘A day in the life of..”. I spoke to Sophie first and asked her about identity, I wanted to find out if she had purposefully played with the notion of identity, after all the work was originally intended as an ‘portfolio for an acting agency’.
“Your question re the acting is an interesting one. I have always loved acting and wonder what it is exactly that draws me in. I do love the challenge and creativity of developing a character, and maybe there is something about being able to be different from the person you are in some way, which is not always about not liking your own character but just being able to experience something different through another character. I’m sure there is also sometimes a bit of escapism in being someone else! In terms of my work with Chrissie however, and I think you mean maybe was I putting across a representation of me – I hope it is a real representation of myself. I always intended it to be open, honest and say this is me, take it or leave it! It doesn’t mean I am always confident and happy with who I am, but I hoped to show aspects of me, from dependence to independence, a woman that is sometimes self-conscious of her body in a world that still has certain ideals in looks and body shape, but also a woman nevertheless who likes to challenge stereotypes of normality, femininity, and can be cheeky, feminine and sexy despite that.”
Sophie goes on to say:
“I’m not entirely sure where you’re coming from with your question on identity. For me, and other disabled people I know and have worked with on projects, there is often a feeling of losing identity when you have a disability. That the ‘label’ of disabled and the connotations that come with that, often overshadows who you really are as a person and all the other identities that any of us have, maybe again because of certain stereotypes. With the images alone I feel the whole story or the whole explanation of me and my life would be less clear. They say a picture tells a thousand stories, but out of all those I wanted people to understand more of me and my life. What do you think? Should the images have stood for themselves and leave people to make up their minds what the image is really saying? I know from personal experience that there is a certain lack of awareness and understanding and even curiosity from people so felt this was one way of answering some of the questions maybe, and open up some of the issues and dialogues it seems there is still to be had. I was nervous about it all, knowing I was approaching it all from a very personal perpective but somehow knew that it had to be and that if I was going to do it then I really did have to be prepared to open up my life completely to allow others to feel they can be open with me and ask the things they may feel they couldn’t before. I was worried about how it would all be received but I think generally it has been positively received.
This image was the initial print that opened the series and accompanying the image was this statement:
It is interesting that the device the photographer uses to foreground the condition that is, by it’s very nature, as close to the heart of the narrative, is one of only two of the images that Sophie actively dislikes, but it centres the context beautifully. The narrative provided by the captions, about Sophie applying her make-up – another patina to the notion of identity – but whereas Chrissie sees the chair as central, which of course it is to Sophie’s life and therefore the means by which Sophie is ‘liberated’, I see the handle as a prop, a bridge maybe, to the same liberation but also restriction. The focus on the handle as a prop to aid Sophie is a very real metaphor for her incapacity and all the poignant for it. The twin perspectives of the ‘user’ and the ‘viewer’ may never be further apart, despite the closeness of the twin protagonists in the exercise. That the means by which Chrissie ‘sees’ the chair and not the handle but both sublimating the faceless Sophie whose identity seems then to be driven by the chair?
There is then a duality that pervades the work, clearly from the differing perspectives, and whilst the original purpose was to provide a set of images the series as edited in the exhibition provides two distinct naratives. Access, as it would appear in “a day in the life of” is plain to see, but there is within those images an undercurrent of solitude that despite the best efforts of Health and Safety will, it appears, continue to image Sophie as an ‘Other’, both as a disabled person and as a woman.
The full edit can be seen here, as it appeared in the Menier Gallery:
The images though can illuminate at different levels for example:
A short story in themselves, these could, edited in this way, all speak of the solitude and the isolation of a disabled person, despite either being surrounded and hemmed in by people or alone and vulnerable on a dark evening. Whether Sophie feels lonely and alone I’m not sure – talking to her I suspect she would probably have very decided views on that subject.
Chrissie recounts “Sophie had seen images of Alison Lapper the artist who was born without arms and shortened legs, we talked about how images of Alison deliberately exposed her disability and our thoughts about that. The conclusions we drew were that it was important to us that our project would be about Sophie who happens to be a disabled person not about a disabled person called Sophie.” The photographer also suggests that Sophie wanted to project a ‘gendered adult’ rather than a “non sexually differentiated child” whom she feels is “continually talked down to”. Many of the perspectives of the images are with Sophie in a wheelchair are therefore from that point of view i.e. from above – looking down, reinforcing that view; reminding the viewer that they are in a position of privilege. This aspect of being a disabled person is graphically illustrated with these two shots, her carer in a position above her, and almost certainly without any intent, but reinforcing the ‘childlike’ dependance on adult care.
However the images of Sophie outside of the confines of the means of liberation show her at eye level and tell another side of Sophie, and whilst the the ‘slightly risque’ shots do develop the notion of a feminine adult, I was particularly struck by the image of Sophie regarding herself in the mirror. The image of a naked woman viewing herself in a mirror is a classic western perspective of narcissism, as Freud might have put it, or vanity. But the image wasn’t that; it was the carer holding the mirror, forcing Sophie to confront her own self image, and that she possessed beauty, rather than still hang on to those words from the good doctor.
I asked both the Chrissie and Sophie about what they thought the work represented:
From of all the images the one that best describes Sophie as feminine, mature and with the least notion of disablement is this one with one of her carers above. Completely at ease in his arms, as he looks to the viewer, forcing us to confront our opinion of what a disabled person might be, might feel, might want to be considered as.