A few weeks ago we were looking for a photographer who would help our foundation create its identity through images. Wheelchair versus the city, accessible or not,scenes of both people in wheelchair struggling and of individuals feeling accomplished and included, going about their normal routine, and being just that- normal. We knew, that if Florida Disability Access and Awareness Foundation was to be successful and promote a positive image and message we needed to speak to general public through powerful imaginary. Pictures that say people with disabilities are just like everyone else, but that sometimes through no fault of their own it gets harder. A woman responded to our Linked In ad, saying that although she is not in Florida right now, she has a picture she'd like us to use. She took it during one of her travels around the State. She called it: "She Swims". She photographed an empty wheelchair on the beach while its owner was splashing around in the ocean. She felt the picture was inspirational, because in the water her subject was free. The ocean allowed her to leave the physical limitations of her wheelchair and move around like everyone else. The chair that was just standing there, patiently waiting until it was done. I told the story to our project manager who found it in combination with the picture extremely inspiration. We could have build our entire design and expand our vision from that single photo. It was exactly what we wanted to do. Excited I forwarded the picture to all our board members thinking we have struck gold. "I don't like it" one of them replied- "It looks like she committed suicide, when into the water and never came out". - How can you be so wrong- at first I thought- Don't you know the inspiring story? I didn't tell you the story. Let me tell you the story. But that was were the problem was. Paul didn't know the context of that picture. Michael and I were already biased, having heard the story behind it, we were expecting something extremely positive. It was a perspective that was extremely hard to shake. Later that week we finally interviewed the photographer and we asked her about how the picture made her feel, Where is the owner, is she dead?- she said before we explained what the photo really represented. That's when I once again realized how important the context is when talking about disabilities. It's not that her answer was good or bad- it's that it was not unreasonable for her to think that. It was clear that the message was ambiguous- and for that reason we ended up not using it. We couldn't risk our audience getting a mixed message. We could have fixed it of course with a motto or a byline. A text explanation, something like "The chair waits for her, while she swims". Something to assure the viewer that it's not about suicide, it's about empowerment. One thing that occurred to me recently, weeks after the story was finished and long forgotten: we may simply differ in our perception of disabilities. Being in a wheelchair myself I see others like me as capable individuals, driven go-getters that have some extra things to deal with in life, because that's the way I see myself. I didn't think "Suicide" because that's not a part of my perspective. Perhaps those who did still struggle with seeing wheelchair users as sad and lonely individuals who are likely to end it. It is interesting how our brain having multiple versions to choose from goes one way or not the other. When it happens it speaks volumes. But does it speak more about the picture or the beholder?
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