I have always loved photography. Back in the 1970’s an era that I have read in the history books, OK an era I lived through, I first discovered it. In those days it wasn’t digital, no, you needed chemicals and enlargers to process photos. I took and processed black and white photos. As a photographer I was always trying to capture that perfect moment, to freeze that moment in time when everything looked so beautiful or dramatic or interesting.
My first job was at a photographic studio in London. I worked in the black and white processing lab. We hand processed and printed the photos from the studio and also from other professionals. This included some smaller magazines that didn’t have their own in house facilities. So I would often be printing dramatic, news worthy pictures of people. One common feature of these was that it caught the person in a pose or a moment that ‘said’ something. Think about the cover photos on magazines and newspapers or posted on social media. They freeze time at the point of the photographers choosing. That frozen moment could be funny, dramatic, sexy, idiotic, stupid, poignant, sad… well you get the idea. Here’s the thing though, it’s a snapshot taken in around 1/60 of a second. So a very brief moment of time. It can be that fleeting a moment. But once taken it is then able to be studied at length, commented on, laughed at and criticised.
Here is why I have written this blog. I saw a set of two photos that are the marker photos for a video of an advert for George clothing. They are of a young lady with ME who, according to the tag line did the photo shoot to raise awareness of ambulatory wheelchair users. That’s people who have wheelchairs but don’t have to use them all the time. I assume the awareness she is wanting to raise is that some illnesses can be just as limiting even though you don’t need to be in a wheelchair all the time. The words that accompany the picture certainly give that thrust. But a picture, especially a snapshot is far more powerful at affecting ideas than the accompanying words. So what do these snapshots show. One shows the young lady balancing unsupported on one leg, in a dance pose, the other shows a different dance pose alongside someone else but equally difficult and strenuous. If it wasn’t for the wheelchair behind her you would just assume it was the picture of a dancer. In neither picture is she touching the wheelchair. She does in the photo shoot and video generally, but remember this blog is about snapshots.
What message do two snapshots give? That a fit young lady likes to dance by wheelchairs? If you read the caption and know she has ME, then you modify that to something like: ME doesn’t stop you dancing, or you can be just as fit and strong in your legs with ME as without. These are of course nonsense conclusions about ME. It is an illness that dramatically limits the body’s ability to exercise. A repeated action, by repeated I mean 2 or 3 times can totally exhaust a muscle in someone with ME. Most people I know with ME would struggle to balance well much less dance. It is an up and down condition, but even on its best days someone with ME does not feel up to dancing around. Plus the effects of such a thing would put an ME sufferer in bed for days afterwards.
The problem is that ME or CFS as it is now called is a diagnosis of exclusion and many conditions can end up with that diagnosis after excluding other things. There isn’t a single diagnostic test for it. I am not very happy with the way doctors hand out the diagnosis. It seems a way of preventing them having to keep investigating. I speak from experience. I was given a diagnosis of ME in 1994, no MRI or very many tests at all had been done to rule other causes out. In 2007 further tests showed that I had peripheral neuropathy caused by long term nerve damage from pernicious anaemia undiagnosed in the 1990’s. It wasn’t until 2015 that a full MRI was done and showed further spinal complications. So you will understand when I say ME is not a brilliant diagnosis. I have no idea if I ever had ME because those other conditions have very similar symptoms. Had they been looked for and found in 1994 would they have said ME? Who knows, I realise one can have multiple problems.
Back to these snapshots. If you freeze a moment in time you are going to give people a picture of that moment. Whatever the lady’s intentions were. The result will be that people will see a healthy young lady dancing by a wheelchair with a headline that tells them she has ME. This will feed into an existing prejudice that says many illnesses are false, many people in wheelchairs could walk but choose not to. It will pour oil on the fire of disbelief. What it won’t do is make people think, ‘oh yes, of course some people can still struggle to stand or walk a little when ill, but still need a wheelchair at other times.’ That’s the message she wanted to put over. I would have thought standing by the chair would have put that message over. But what photographer is going to take that picture.
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