"Nothing Is Uglier Than Ignorance": Art, Disability Studies, and the Disability Community in the Positive Exposure Photography Project
Abbott, Natalie, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies
The Positive Exposure photography project, a collaboration between Rick Guidotti and Diane McLean, has the aim of reconfiguring visible disabilities and differences as beautiful and worthy of celebration; it combines art, education, social activism, and support for the disability community. The article argues that an understanding of disability theory and the visual representation of disability can inform a discussion and interrogation of the assumptions behind such a project. Ultimately, Positive Exposure is found to function by simultaneously working with and against traditional modes of how the disabled body is presented to the public.
The stated goal of Positive Exposure, a collaborative photography project between former fashion photographer Rick Guidotti and scholar Diane McLean, is to provide "the opportunity for participants and audience alike to challenge stigma associated with difference by celebrating the beauty and richness of human diversity" (2). The project ranges from single photography sessions to exhibitions and educational presentations, as a "unique partnership between visual arts, genetics, mental health and human rights" (2). Various aspects of the Positive Exposure project include individual photography sessions for people with disabilities, photographing and presenting at support groups within the disability community (mainly organizations focusing on rare genetic conditions), presenting at schools, and advocacy efforts within the disability community.1 Social scientists may choose to discuss and measure the effect this project has on the subjects of the photographs, but looking at it from a Humanities perspective, as I start to do here, can illuminate various strengths and weaknesses.
The Photographs: Life Magazine (1998)
Because the scope of Positive Exposure has evolved, I begin by chronologically tracing its transformation from an artistic project to one encompassing artistic, social, and medical elements. The genesis of the project-publically displayed in a Life Magazine pictorial-involves photographs of people with Albinism, and a close look at the spread illustrates some of Guidotti's basic photographic methods.
The pictorial combines visual and textual elements, each mode highlighting several contrasts (see Figure 1). The first page of the article juxtaposes lightness and darkness; the model is portrayed against a black background that highlights the whiteness of her blowing hair, and the gold text contrasts with the two neutral colors behind it. The profile shot of the model, hair blowing, is itself a conventional photographic representation of the female body, even as the body it portrays is perceived as different. The text, "Redefining Beauty", one of the dual focal points of the page, and artistically juxtaposed with the portrait, highlights the insistence on the potentially multiple connotations of the phrase as a unifying concept for the project. Most explicitly, the idea of "redefining beauty" works within two pre-existing constructions: that there is indeed a clear definition of beauty, and that this publicly held construction is malleable and subject to influence by the artistic project at hand. A dual supposition is put forward: that there is a definition of beauty that can be catalogued and defined and that there exists the ability to guide this vision via the medium of photography. A subhead, "Photographer Rick Guidotti opens our eyes to the beauty of albinism," situates the project both as potentially revolutionary and as merely illustrating what is obvious and should be clear to any viewer. In forming the project rhetorically, as a guided endeavor, the photographs work within preconceived notions and stereotypes in order to challenge them.
The second page juxtaposes three photographs, once again echoing conventional fashion photography shots (a head-on shot with wind effects, a bodylength profile movement shot, and a posed dress-length shot) with interspersed text. …