Summer Service Grant | Photovoice: Picture Dis(Ability)

Last summer, Carrie Chui (University of Chicago ’15) received a Summer Service Grant from QuestBridge to explore how photographs can speak louder than words for adults with mental and physical disabilities. Below, she reflects on the growth she both experienced herself and witnessed in others over the course of the summer.

Looking at their own photographs, Shirley and Phuc could not hold back their smiles. I was also elated, seeing their work finally come to fruition and arranged neatly along the gallery walls. From the early conception of the photographs to their final curation in space, for over three months, Shirley and Phuc were integral in helping me help them realize their creative vision throughout the process. As a result, their photographs are not only visually thoughtful, but also deeply illuminating, privileging us with some of the most intimate glimpses into the lives of the very artists who took them. In fact, the photographs narrate the everyday realities for Shirley and Phuc. For the two of them, these realities, either despite or because of their disabilities, are both incredibly nuanced and telling.

This summer, I had the opportunity to not only pursue my artistic interests, but also advocate for positive change alongside individuals like Shirley and Phuc. Throughout history, people with disabilities have been seen as incapable in their capacity for making meaningful contributions to society. Often, these individuals have endured various stigma and emotional burden of harsh categorizations and segregation. In fact, in the U.S., the discrimination of people with disabilities wasn’t widely questioned until the 1970s. Although many improvements have been made since then (for example, the 1990 American Disabilities Act, which is by far one of the most important cornerstones of progress for the disabled community), forms of discrimination about those with cognitive and physical impairment are still observable today. Furthermore, the disabled community currently lacks adequate representation, contributing still to those attitudes that undermine the progress being made in these communities. It is this disempowering lack of voice that I sought to combat in my photography project, “Photovoice: Picture Dis(ability).”

“Photovoice: Picture Dis(ability)” rests on the concept of photovoice and the idea that a photograph can often speak more than words alone. Photovoice puts cameras in the hands of individuals and asks them to be the tellers of their own stories, crafters of their own art, and discussers of their own experiences, producing statements made up of their own pictures and words that communicate their own experience. Consequently, as a part of this project, my role was to simply facilitate its logistics: provide cameras, reserve gallery space, advertise event, and the like. Meanwhile, Shirley and Phuc were the fearless artists—and their works are astonishing:

Photograph by Shirley
Photograph by Shirley

Shirley’s photographs reflect on her immediate surroundings. Talking to Shirley, I learned that this young woman tends a beautiful vegetable garden in her backyard and enjoys taking strolls in her neighborhood park. Shirley’s photographs communicate to us her sense of physical place and belonging. “This is home,” she told me. “I like being around plants and trees. They make me feel happy.” Still, Shirley’s pictures of home also reveal her feelings of living with disability. For her, the impact is emotional—the emptiness of the parks and the lack of people and faces allude to her feelings of social isolation and ambiguity about her agency and empowerment in her own community.

Photograph by Phuc
Photograph by Phuc

Phuc’s photographs are similarly telling. His reflections span everything from the minutia of his houseplants to his reverence for the divine. From our conversations and his images, I learned that Phuc is a devout Buddhist. He goes to temple every weekend and believes in rebirth and the afterlife. In fact, whether or not they were an extension of his own sense of enlightenment, his photos strike me as a powerful lens on consciousness and what it means to be human. Phuc’s photographs also expose the impact of disability on his life—the shakiness, blur, and out-of-focus shots show us it is physical. Nonetheless, while his condition compromises his movement and control, his persistence and inclination that led him to the multitude of similar photographs show me the very human passion and personal strength I have been privileged to witness in this individual.

By working with Shirley and Phuc, I gained incredible insight into the lives of individuals with disability and was able to share it with a broader audience. If we were to measure the success of this project, it would be with the sheer number and quality of conversations that were generated, on gallery day, with community members, who gave us strength in their solidarity, compassion, and understanding. Furthermore, it is my hope that as more of these conversations are being had, they will help us gain a better understanding of and leave behind misconceptions about the experience of individuals with disabilities. Thanks to Shirley and Phuc, I know that individuals living with disability are far more than their disabilities.

Thank you, Questbridge, for all of your continuous support and for allowing me to complete this meaningful project.

To see more of Shirley and Phuc’s photographs, please go here.

by Carrie Chui, Summer Service Grant Recipient