Portraits of Perspectives
BGSU students’ photos challenge the notion of disability
By: Julie Carle
A dozen Bowling Green State University photography students invested their time, talents and emotions to bring visibility to a group of individuals with developmental disabilities.
The class, Community Projects in Photography (ARTS 3410) is a service learning experience. Students of BGSU professor Lynn Whitney developed significant friendships and photographed individuals assisted through Wood Lane, the local board of developmental disabilities. The photographs they took captured individuals in quiet moments, work environments, and doing the activities they love – from playing cello to participating in sports.
The portraits now hang in an exhibition called “Beyond Gypsy Lane: To Reach the Goal,” on display through July 24 at the Toledo Museum of Art’s Community Gallery. The exhibition then moves to American Frame in Maumee, Ohio for the month of August. A closing reception is scheduled for Aug. 30 when individuals, their families, BGSU students and members of the larger community will gather once more to celebrate the partnership.
The project was done to “bring visibility and a voice to individuals in this community,” Whitney explained.
Dr. Lisa Kaplan, who earned a Ph.D. in American Culture Studies from BGSU in 2015 and is an assistant professor at Adrian College, talked with the students about language, power and the possibilities that come with dominant representations of marginalized populations. This conversation “allowed them to think about the impact of visual media in general and how they might disrupt someo of the discourses that lead to harm,” said Kaplan, whose
work focuses on photography but is framed by cultural and critical theory.
“I find the seriousness with which they take on their mission humbling,” she continued. “Even the most beginning students’ commit to their work in a way that suggests that they know there is more at stake than a grade. They have built a relationship with this person and they become determined to show who they are. The grade takes a backseat to producing work that their partner and their audience will respond to positively.”
“I have never seen any class produce a body of work and show it with even nearly the success of these classes. For both the students, the Wood Lane partners, and the community, the pictures made during this semester must be seen. Without a public audience, the weight and value of new and varied forms of representation falters,” Kaplan said.
Dianna Temple, a former student of Whitney’s and now coordinator of specialized services at Wood Lane, helped Whitney develop the concept, as an extension of her occupational therapy work of “breaking down barriers.”
The class was designed to introduce “community integration,” Temple said, and to help the students learn about developing discussions through the use of cameras.
“The students learn about similar values and connect with the individuals we serve,” Temple said. “It’s great when the two come together, become friends; at the end when they see the photos on the wall it means everything to those individuals.”
Each student, paired with a person affiliated with Wood Lane, was tasked with using a camera lens to break through stereotypes and stigmas. Before even a frame was taken, the pairs spent time getting to know one another and discover their commonalities.
Andriana Nativio, a senior 2-dimensional art major from Cleveland, connected with Mary Ellen immediately and decided walking and talking was the best way to engage Mary Ellen in conversation. Instead of taking photographs of Mary Ellen at work, Nativio captured her personality and realness during some of their walks.
Through Mary Ellen’s zest for life and people, Nativio realized she could learn a lot from her, especially how to love others without judgment. “I realized my own privilege, and how I was blinded to that until I had this opportunity,” Nativio explained.
The best part for Nativio was seeing Mary Ellen’s joy when the photos were introduced during the opening reception at the museum. “It made me so happy to see her happy,” Nativio said.
For Anthony Kappler, a senior 2-dimensional art major, didn’t know what to expect from the class when he signed up. He learned “about how a person with developmental disability goes through their daily life. … about their real-life struggles, the people they care about and how they are just regular people.”
“It has helped me understand that we all live the same lives and deal with the same real-life issues”
Ted, his photography partner, was easy to get to know because of his outgoing personality and similar interests. They developed a friendship beyond the project and have spent time this summer at a Mud Hens game and a barbecue.
“It has helped me understand that we all live the same lives and deal with the same real-life issues,” Kappler said.
According to Whitney, “We tried to help the students see how applicable to their work it is to show human beings negotiating the world, and how this experience can better inform their work,” Whitney said.
“They can reap the rewards of doing something for someone else, and still make deeply personal work”
“These are skills they can utilize in their lives,” she continued. “They can reap the rewards of doing something for someone else, and still make deeply personal work,” Whitney added.
In addition to seeing the utter joy of everyone at the opening reception, another highlight for Whitney was how her students chose to curate the exhibition. “Throughout the semester the students invested themselves in seeing, and in forming meaningful relationships too. When confronted with the vast and beautiful wall space in the Community Gallery at the Toledo Museum of Art, the task of how best to express this resulted in several key decisions. They selected to sequence the images by form and narrative content as opposed to groupings of student/ individual. In addition, they chose to hang the work at a lower level to make viewing accessible to all.
“The effort and compassion the students showed throughout the semester and into the final display was simply wonderful for me to witness.”
From Wood Lane administrators’ perspectives, “Collaborative projects like the Service Learning Photography Course are invaluable to Wood Lane because of their ability to bring continued awareness that everyone has something positive to contribute to their community,” said Mollie Tyrrell, community education coordinator for the Wood County Board of Developmental Disabilities.
“These projects help guide our vision of individuals with developmental disabilities living, working and participating as contributing members of their community. This project specifically assists in building relationships for individuals served by Wood Lane. When others recognize and understand individuals with developmental disabilities we advance our mission.”
Wood Lane Industries CEO Vic Gable said, “Perspectives are changed through this project, and everyone benefits.”
“Our role as an agency is to educate the community that disability is a natural part of our lives, our culture. These students have done a tremendous job of sharing that message through their work.”