Part 2 – Exercise 4 -Personal Histories

Having reviewed the work by the three Level 3 students, it was the work by Peter Mansell which really caught my interest. I think it has been the weeks spent last year visiting my mum in hospital. For a period of about 4 months her world was very much a choice of 3 hospital locations – the Acute hospital where she was first diagnosed, the‘virtual hospital bed’ in the lounge at my parents’ house where she was seen by community nurses and other social care staff, and the Norwich hospice where she finally died. Similarly Peter’s environment is limited in terms of the variety of locations he spends many hours of the day. With mum, each detail of those locations we all learnt thoroughly and intimately down to each sign on the wall, each bell pull, each kitchen ice-cube dispenser. It was the details you looked at each time there was a lull in the conversation. These objects were a resting place for the eyes and brain and I know that revisiting any of them would instantly invoke a mixture of both happy and sad memories now.

I’ve been inspired recently by watching James on ‘The Big Life Fix’. At the time of the BBC2 programme James was 22 years old and terminally ill with Epidemolysis Bullosa, a rare condition which causes his skin to blister, fall off and scar.


His only release and distraction from the pain was to immerse himself in his photography, but as his condition worsened and his fingers fused together, holding his SLR became impossible. An inventor on The Big Life Fix programme created a way of James controlling the different functions on his Canon via an app on his tablet.


James was inspirationally upbeat despite his challenges and it really made me think about what I feebly see as restrictions … the weather is not pristine with crystal blue skies, I am in my own country – how can I possibly get inspired with the same old culture of the mundane UK… the possible embarrassment of attempting street photography in your home city and getting spotted lurking around street corners with my big lenses… no convenient herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain behind the house…? Rather pathetic!

It also made me think about the perspective of photographers in wheelchairs and prompted me to go online and see what challenges they would face. I came across an article ‘Bums, tums and torsos, the work of street photographer Adam Summerscale.’ Adam uses a camera mounted to his mobility scooter.


In the article she wrote about Adam, Hilarie Stelfox explains the issue about perspective:-

‘The world seen from a wheelchair is full of shoulder bags, beer bellies, elbows and children’s faces….. While most of the images are of headless able-bodied adults, just occasionally a disabled person appears in the background, peering through the forest of arms, bodies and bags.’

According to Stelfox, Adam doesn’t want to make disability itself the subject of his work, as another American photographer, Garry Winogrand, did during the 1930s. “He photographed disabled people and used them as a subject,” said Adam, “but I want to do things the other way round – a disabled person photographing able bodied people to invite them into my world.” He would ultimately like to work as a photographer for charities.

Like Adam Summerscale, I think that Peter Mansell is inviting viewers to have an insight into his world. Mansell’s images are more subtle and clearly more focussed on demonstrating to us as the viewer, the banality of the locations which in effect are his ‘waking world’. Conversely, Summerscale’s series is to do with the limitations of his perspective from the height of his camera as he sits in his wheelchair. Summerscale’s images still exude a sense of freedom, whereas in Mansell’s images, the walls that seem to be closing in on him especially during the periods he is hospitalised. He highlights this by photographing the area of carpet where he normally positions his chair. His world is excruciatingly small and he wants us as viewers to get a sense of the claustrophobia of that.

I also empathised with Peter Mansell when he explained ‘In a way it sort of objectified my situation or experience and by so doing released me emotionally’. By using his photography as a conduit for communicating his feelings, his psychological burden was reduced.  Like the old adage ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’, its clear that for some individuals, photography can, through its capacity to act as a communicator, provide comfort, therapy, and distraction from the reality of life.

How do you feel about the loss of authorial control that comes when the viewer projects their own experiences and emotions onto the images you’ve created?

I think that the simple act of someone looking at your photographs is already a shared experience between you and the viewer. It is inevitable that it will potentially either conjure up memories in them from their own life, or at the very minimum, provide them with a reaction at some basic emotional level, shock, awe, intrigue, sadness, or maybe just plain boredom… these instant emotions will be based on their previous experiences, an image of a sick old man might remind them of a lost grandfather, a particular expression or pose in the subject might remind them of a lost love, street photography may just be silly nonsense to them, portraiture might leave them cold and disinterested. It really is all part of the tapestry of life and the diversity of humanity, and photographs allow us to communicate with each other and to thousands of strangers around the world if we wish. Why would anyone want that not to happen with the images they had taken?

I personally welcome the reaction. I would like someone to have a special memory of a road I’d photographed and tell me about it, (my girly sentimentality in overdrive)… Surely also, the more abstract an image is, the more the photographer is inviting you to interpret it using your own experience. Why leave a story open-ended and expect people not to want to finish it? Surely the more interpretations on an image, the greater number of ‘endings’, the more interesting it is and the longer someone will linger on it, stand in front of it and roll it around their tongue then chew it over before fully digesting it… If you want to add signposts you could use captions with the image. If the information you feel is important, the caption can then lead someone down a particular avenue as opposed to another, but you can never ever really not allow them the freedom to interpret in their own way.


BBC2 (2016) The Big Life Fix with Simon Reeve. At Accessed on 8/1/2017

Stelfox H., (2016) The world from a wheelchair captured by Huddersfield photographer. At Accessed on 8/1/2017

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