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How art can help us connect with the cry for change

Photographer Belinda Mason reflects on how her work provides an important supplement to that of human rights advocates.

By Belinda Mason

It is difficult to wrap the cry for social change in the trimmings of art, present it in a gallery and then watch people sip Champagne and eat canapés whilst they admire the images of the most disadvantaged group of Australians, the indigenous community. When I look at the images in my photographic essay, Unfinished Business, which reveals the stories of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities, like many photographers, including my colleague David Dare Parker, I am transported back to the moment the image was taken – back to when I heard the cry for change at the grassroots. And that is where I want to take my audience.

The images from Unfinished Business don’t seek to shock. They retain a dignity and pride. The viewer can connect to this. Without it, the viewer’s experience could start at the point of pity.

This is important because the cry for social change is more usually transcribed by advocates, who are entrusted by those behind the cry to take their story, and the stories of others, on to a larger stage. However, in this process, those behind the cry become a third person and, en masse, a faceless statistic. Such distance allows objectivity and open discussion, but humanity and empathy can be lost.

Finding empathy, not compassion

My intent is to engage the viewer to discover similarities rather than differences. Through our similarities, a greater understanding of our differences can, I hope, create a more tolerant environment. Ignorance is an inability to reflect on our own frailties and fears. Ignorance fuels discrimination, inhibiting the ability to experience, at first hand, the diversity around us.

The text panels which accompany the images, written in the first person by the individual shown, further enable this. It’s very hard to argue with someone talking in the first person, and more so when they never say the word “you” and always says “I”. 

Like the participants of my work, I invite the viewer on their own journey to find empathy rather than compassion. Our reaction to the images, exposes us to ourselves and our ability to listen when someone lays their naked soul in our path.

Participants rather than subjects

At times, this process has worked for me and against me. An artist normally presents work that is entirely their own response to an issue or person. Ultimately, the focus is on the artist’s emotions and responses, and not the participant’s. I consciously choose to use the word participant, rather than subject, to remind myself and the viewer not to objectify the person in the image. I also consciously engage with participants. I ensure that they collaborate with me, choosing the approach of having their intimate thoughts and emotions translated into an image.

Challenging prejudices

Each story in Unfinished Business is complex. It is intertwined with Australia’s political and social history, which has resulted in unacceptably high rates of disability in indigenous communities. The project seeks to challenge existing prejudices and misconceptions about indigenous people living with disability. It draws attention to critical issues: racism, foetal alcohol syndrome, the ‘black diggers’ and the ‘stolen generation’, limited access to services, the impacts of asbestos mining and atomic testing, and the incarceration of people with disabilities who are held in prison without charge.

In September 2013, the exhibition opened at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, to coincide with the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the 24th Session of the Human Rights Council. The work is currently displayed at the World Health Organization in Geneva with the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, through the Australian Mission in Geneva, and the First People’s Disability Network

Recently, I spent time with Carolyn Frohmader, Executive Director of Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA) reflecting on how we can ensure that the human faces behind issues are not hidden behind red tape or normalised by saturation media coverage. She commented that she felt that even just three minutes’ worth of hearing a person’s story first hand was “worth more than thousands of words I have written”. 

Carolyn is the recipient of numerous awards for her valuable disability rights work, and what she is says is not exactly true.

But collaboration for social change is important – and the ability for artists to work together with advocates and the media to show the human faces to policy makers and the mainstream is a powerful one. 

Belinda Mason

Portrait of a woman


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