In the world of image banks, images of people with disabilities tend to cluster on two poles. “They’re either portrayed as superhuman or super pathetic,” says Rebecca Swift, director of visual insights at Getty Images. “There doesn’t seem to be that wide range that you get with able-bodied people.”
Getty has seen searches for disability-related images soar over the past year – searches for “wheelchair access” rose 371% from 2016 to 2017, and searches related to autism soared by 434% – and the issue of representation has become impossible to ignore.
This also became clear to Oath, the parent company of Yahoo and Tumblr, as they worked to create a website highlighting their work around accessibility in tech and struggled to find images. representative. So the company, with guidance from the National Disability Leadership Alliance, tapped Getty to help change the current representational paradigm from within. Launching May 17, The Disability Collection, a new sub-category of Getty images, will feature people with disabilities in their daily lives.
What you notice first are people’s faces. Unlike those common images that focus on the hands of someone clutching a wheelchair or frame a blind person in front of a window to show what they can’t see – or depict the blurring of a prosthetic leg as they hits a runway – images from the new Getty collection focuses on human interaction and people’s facial expressions.
Of course, there are challenges in capturing a range of disabilities. Visual media revolves around visual cues, but not all disabilities are necessarily visible. “That’s why the wheelchair tends to be the icon of disability,” says Swift. “This project for us, as a company, is to take it all in and say: Don’t just focus on wheelchairs. Think about the full range and think about how people with disabilities want to be represented. »
For Getty, that meant developing a set of guidelines for photographers in their network to follow. They emphasize the mundane, everyday moments – texting, taking selfies, shopping for groceries. Many of the guidelines come from focus groups with disability organizations that Oath has hosted and shared with Getty. “We got input from a host of advocacy groups on how people in their communities want to be represented,” Swift says.
Think about how easy it is to find a stock image of a group of friends taking a selfie, and then think about how many of those images depict a person with a disability. About 15% of people in the world have a disability, but Getty found that only 2% of archival photos contain a depiction of their lives. Drastically increasing the volume of photos that show people with disabilities in everyday situations – and falling in love, raising children, going on vacations and leading business meetings – will begin to signal to a more diverse reality that is often distorted in media and images.
This also involves promoting the work of photographers with disabilities. Jordan Nicholson, a Seattle-based photographer, was born with Tar Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that results in the absence of a radius in the forearm and a deficiency in blood platelets. His portraits situate the subjects in a humanistic way; their expressions and body language, not their disabilities, are the focus. In a photo of Munya Mayiha, a UC Berkeley senior who plays wheelchair basketball, and Zahra Chauhan, a friend of hers from California School for the Deaf, you see them making eye contact, sign, and it takes a moment to notice the prosthesis under Mayiha’s rolled up jeans.
Oath commissioned a series of images from Nicholson to inspire the type of work that will be featured in Getty’s Disability Collection, which was launched with just 50 photographs. The agency wanted to keep the original collection small, Swift says, to show “the best of the best” of what this new mode of disability photography could be. But Getty expects the size of the collection to grow rapidly. The guidelines, says Swift, are intended to inform their network of photographers on how to diversify their work. When casting a family shoot or staging a typical corporate executive, for example, photographers could incorporate more people with various disabilities. “The goal is not to be tokenistic or stereotypical about it,” Swift says, “but to actually choose people who live with various disabilities and create an environment in which they feel comfortable doing part of this shoot and to create natural images that reflect their reality.
And of course, it goes both ways. People with disabilities still face enormous barriers to participation in the labor market and in many aspects of daily life that able-bodied people often take for granted. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities, for example, is nearly double that of able-bodied people. If more images of people with disabilities in the workplace, attending sporting events and in leadership positions start flooding the media, it may help break down barriers to participation in these areas.